Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Mondulkiri, Cambodia: Part 1

The day after the school’s closing ceremony, we drove 8 hours out of the city of Phnom Penh to a village up in the mountains called Mondulkiri. (Video here.) The coffee grown in this region is our favorite from this country so far. Also found in this region of Cambodia are a muslim indigenous group called something like Chams, and speaking a language with the same name in addition to religious Arabic and Khmer. We found one of the mosques on the way to Mondulkiri. You can see the speaker sticking up for the call to prayer and the moon, an important symbol in Islam, on the towers:

While we were looking at it, an imam chased the chickens off of the porch. Even the arches had a distinctly different architecture than the Cambodian:

After a loooong day Saturday, Ezra was not excited to be sitting in the car longer. (Here we had stopped to stretch our legs and hadn’t put him back in the car seat yet.)

In Mondulkiri, it was much cooler and the air was incomparably fresher than in the city. Talia, my nature baby, and Elias ran to play in the grass as soon as we arrived!
It is interesting to be in a place where air conditioning isn’t necessary and sleeping under a mosquito net is. As Ben and I were talking one morning, we came to the conclusion that the lodge must have made a list of necessary luxuries for most western guests like: hot showers, western-style food options in the cafeteria, comfortable beds with bug protection and a toilet; and then left everything else rustic. For example, the garden bathroom has hot water and a toilet, but the pebble flooring drains out into the surrounding garden area, resulting in a lush vine covering the entire outside of the bathroom. There is no sink drain or shower drain. The kids are pretty excited to have plants in the bathroom… as you can see in Elias’ commentary in the SagaUnscripted Kid Interviews of Mondulkiri video.

The kids also loved the new-to-them, interesting plants and insects! The fuzzy caterpillars you see on the tree there were cause for quite a bit of speculation regarding their toxicity or lack of it, types of butterflies they turned into and all sorts of things. Talia and Elias were also fascinated by the plants that closed when you touched them (video here.)
 When we found elephant statues in front of a big hotel in the village, the kids just had to try them out:

The beautiful Busra Waterfalls were an amazing sight, (video here) though quite dangerous as there were 500 foot drop-offs in several places without any guardrails or warning signs:

The kids were disappointed to not swim. We found another waterfall the next day… but that’s for a different post!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Cambodian International School-Year Closing Ceremony

The school year has finally come to an end. Friday Talia's class launched the rockets they made as part of their space unit for the last day of class. We mixed a tiny bit of baking soda and vinegar at home to see the reaction because she was so curious about how it was going to work. The next day they used a lot and made the rockets go almost all the way to the roof of the pavilion!
For the closing ceremony Saturday we got up at 6 to leave at 7 in a tuktuk and get to the other side of the city by 7:45. Preschool and Kindergarten productions were in the morning. Ezra wasn't too shy and did a good job following his teacher's dance cues.
Elias graduated Kindergarten! He's proud to be going to first grade. Surprisingly, he wasn't too shy and went across the stage without crying.

There was only an hour for Ben between the lower grade and upper grade ceremonies. Since we had kids in both, it made this a whole-day ordeal. To get some energy out, and because the boys did a good job, we took the kids to Urban Space, on the same side of town. The kids had a blast in the pool and playground. Then it was time to go watch Talia's ceremony.

My phone died, so I'll have to get photos from the school's Facebook page, (edited to add) but Talia did a great job. Her class sang The Lion Sleeps Tonight. She got a certificate for being the best in Social Studies in her class. It was her last day to see her amazing teacher as he's going back to the UK. He took time this year to connect with Talia and make sure any gaps from changing curriculums were covered. He took time to develop relationships with his students and Talia will miss him. Relationship is the most important part of teaching I keep finding.

Zoe did a good job through this long day. As long as I was there to hold and feed her, she was fine. She thought her brothers were hilarious and kept laughing at them. 

The program ended around 5:50 and neither boy had taken a nap. I'll let you figure out what that means... We went to pick up the rental van for our next adventure, ate supper and crashed. 

The next adventure is coming up soon...

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Ben's Field Trip to Koh Kong, Near Western Border

Grade 10 at Ben's school raised a percent of the $6,000 needed to help build a school in Koh Kong Khong. They traveled with their principal and teacher to the ribbon cutting ceremony.
It was about 8 hours by bus.
The place they stayed was a floating lodge on a river!
Because the lodge is dedicated to not impacting the environment, it's a little pricey to pay for the upkeep of the canvas tents. (Principal chaperone duty paid Ben's way.)
Everything is so green in this part of Cambodia!
Here's the bedroom of the floating lodge:
The students from Ben's school did some kayaking and paddle boarding on the river. 

Students in this region have to take a boat to school because this area of Cambodia is where soldiers from the Khmer Rouge fled, preventing its development (but eating up several species like the alligators that no longer exist here)- so there aren't motorcycles here as there aren't roads. As the school has grown, there are now too many students to fit on the boat in one trip. Some have to hike part of the way along the river until the boat is empty enough to hold them. If they want to continue school past grade six, they have to take a two hour trip one way to get there. Currently the guy driving the boat is carrying the expenses of gas and upkeep, but that isn't sustainable. He's looking at charging and other options.
This was the fruit portion of breakfast: not pictured was the omelet and pancakes.
They also got to see a beautiful waterfall. The guide said all of the tourists go see the waterfall and Ben thought it would be cool if someone created a floating coffee shop to sell to the tourists and maybe have some of the proceeds pay for gas to get the kids to school.

If you visit Cambodia, these would definitely be handy!
(disclaimer: if you buy anything from the link, we might get enough for a cheap Cambodian coffee.)

It's definitely beautiful outside of the city!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Birthday in Cambodia

We got to try a typical Spanish restaurant for my birthday, (not Mexican). By "typical" I mean even the name was Típico. ;) Literally.Of course, my favorite part was the churros!!!
I guess I don't look very happy here, but I was! So many nice people wrote me birthday messages. I think my birthday is one time I really see the myriad of places and people who've touched my life.
The kids loved churros too. Big surprise. 
Even Ben who hardly ever likes chocolate had a few. I think he might've preferred cheese to chocolate on them. 
And my awesome boss got me a birthday cake!
I know that I'm blessed more than I deserve and I appreciate all of the ways my family and friends made my birthday special.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mother's Day: Cajun Food in Cambodia

May is a busy month in the family I grew up in. 5 of us have birthdays in May and all of those 5 are also in mother roles, making it a double celebration month! When abroad, that means I miss everyone in May, though.
As I grew up with a Cajun father, Ben thought it would be great to go to a restaurant that was offering gumbo for Mother's Day only. Alma's Cafe in Phnom Penh was a welcome find when we first arrived in Cambodia from Mexico! The owner's are from Mexico (wife) and New Orleans (husband) so they have quite a range of flavor to offer. In addition, they often partner with ethical NGO's who offer a variety of services and products so you never know what cool thing will be around when you visit. It's a great place to go when we're really missing Spanish and Mexico in general.

Ben and all of the kids took me out for this special meal for Mother's Day. Ezra tore the gumbo up! (As well as some quesadillas...) The Cajun side of my family thinks that he's the most Cajun-looking of my kids, and apparently his taste buds followed that pattern also.
 I'm grateful for my family. I love my husband and all of my children. They have helped me grow in character and added so much love and meaning to my life. I'm thankful to be a mother.
If you like Cajun food, check out these seasonings. If you get any of them, we might get enough to buy half a container of filé... they're delicious, and worth sharing with you regardless.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Bananas, Weddings and the Conflict Between Tradition and Progress

Though Cambodians think we're weird to usually have bread (toast) with breakfast, they often enjoy it for a snack. Usually the bakeries around here offer jam and "sweetened condensed beverage creamer" to go on the baguettes. Ben got some for the kids to try.
I have to admit, "beverage creamer" sounds disgusting and I don't think I would ever buy it again. It was super sweet, so the kids enjoyed it of course! Ben is great about trying new things and finding new experiences for the kids to remember a country by.
I think one of the kids, probably Ezra, stuck something in this fan while it was running... the casualty fan blades lie broken in the bottom of the protective screen. We keep trying to flag down the fan guy when he rides through trying to sell replacement fan parts on his motorcycle. He has a pole sticking up on the back of his bike full of fan blades, but he speeds through so quickly, we haven't caught him yet.
I finally caught a sweet smile from this chubby, love bug. She's such a sweet baby. She has learned how to roll, so now we're always holding her or sitting by her on a bed or couch so she doesn't hit the floor. Sometimes I put a blanket on the floor, but there are so many critters I'd hate to have something bite her. One thing that comes in often looks like a big black centipede. They're creepy and the Cambodians say that they have a bad bite. We try to flush them any time we find one and the flusher is working, otherwise we seal them in the trash outside!
For Khmer New Year our neighbors were so kind and gave us tons of bananas and mangoes. With so many bananas, I had to find a way to use them up. These aren't usually the typical Cavendish banana, but a version I've heard called "apple banana" because of their firmer texture and slightly different flavor. I used a normal banana bread recipe from online, but modified it to make it cheaper: using no eggs, less flour and oil. I gave some to all of the neighbors and made Ezra's birthday cake with it. I've made 13 batches of the stuff, just to get rid of all of the bananas! This is the cheaper recipe I've come to use:
3 cups blended bananas with a little bit of oil (we're trying to use them up, right!?)
3/4 cup of brown sugar (white sugar makes it burn on top before it's done in the middle)
1 teaspoon of salt
a dash of cinnamon
a dash of vanilla powder
a teaspoon of baking soda
2 cups of flour (If you use rice flour, half that because it absorbs more liquid.) 

The neighbors liked it so much that now any time they have a batch of not-green bananas like they like them, they give them to me to make into banana bread. Some have asked for the recipe and said I should start a bakery. I'm thinking, give them the recipe and when we leave they can buy the toaster oven and begin a bakery themselves. I think I'll be fine not seeing another apple banana in my life if I don't have to. :)

There was a wedding at the end of our neighborhood by a major intersection. Traffic had to divert in honor of tradition. The neighbors with a vehicle were stuck on this end of the neighborhood until the wedding finished. They were nice and pushed the tables and chairs over so I could get to work the next morning.  On the plus side, our street was safer for kids to play on. The people having this wedding decided to take the tent down after one day and have the rest of the celebration in a restaurant. We were relieved because it makes it so much easier to get out of the neighborhood, but it does make me wonder about how Cambodians are coping with the changing times and their traditions. Even on major highways wedding tents are set up covering a good portion of the road and can last for several days. Guests come wearing fancy, embroidered clothing and eat with the bride and grooms family. Each person just sets up a tent in front of where they live. In the past, before cars were available here, this was just a minor inconvenience as the smaller motorcycles and bikes can get through, but as the middle class grows and cars become more and more common along with more and more weddings or funerals or other occasions calling for tents in the road, it gets increasingly difficult to get around. I'm sure it will get sorted out over the next 50 years or so, but until then, we get to explore new roads and ways to get around.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Zoe 3 Months and Ezra 3 Years

We've been experiencing the early rains foreigners call "mango rains" that come before rainy season in between humid, scorching days. School has returned to normal after the Khmer New Year holiday and time keeps marching on. Look at these kids!
Can you believe this very-loved baby is 3 months old already?
Both boys love her very much. It's sweet to see a new side of them, that will one day make them good fathers, emerge.
This boy turns 3 this weekend!
He is mischievous, curious, into everything (especially water lately: water hoses, bathroom sprayers, water bottles- and always making a mess) energetic and a sweetheart.

Thinking of the fear that accompanied his birth f(rom being forced to birth in a hospital so far from family and in a culture I had a hard time trusting) I am very thankful for the lesson in trust. Everything went perfectly. Looking back I see many things that worked out perfectly for his birth: the quick, 6-hour labor, the hospital leaving me alone and letting me sign refusal forms and then, this... He was born just a few months before my best friend died, and there's nothing so comforting as rocking a baby through your tears to find hope for the future.

Ezra means "God is my help" and that's what his birth and life so far have taught me. I'm sure I'll also need much more of God's help to raise this curious, energetic boy into adulthood! 😂

We love you, Ezra! Happy birthday!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Khmer New Year 2017

"Mama, take a picture of me with the two babies!"
This past week we've had a break from school for Khmer New Year. It is celebrating the end of harvest and the beginning of rainy season. Since we are almost finished with the paperwork process for Zoe, we needed to stick close to home still.
When you miss Spain and churros...
The people around us have given us lots of fruit, and some build mounds of fruit decorated with twinkling lights in their houses. Monks have walking around waiting for someone to pay them to chant a blessing over their new year.
New Year picnic on top floor balcony.
Monks then take feathers, dip them in water and flick it everywhere. Someone told me it's customary for Khmer to spray people who pass by with water during this holiday. Maybe that's why the kids come in SOAKED several times a day this week. I've tried to keep them dry since the boys have bad coughs and a weird rash, but that means they can't go outside. I've seen several neighbors with water hoses and the neighbor kids with big water guns.
Ezra enjoyed his Easter surprise.
So we have had picnics and races on the top floor where we dry our clothes. Since Khmer New Year also falls on Easter, Ben got the kids a surprise of Danish butter cookies and hot chocolate. They were excited.

Maybe if you are looking for a new chance to resume your January resolutions, you can celebrate Khmer New Year also. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Khmer Curry

There is an argument over who curry really belongs to, the English or the Indian, but today I'm going to show you a completely different version of curry; Khmer.
We started out chopping up lemon grass, turmeric, garlic, and some kind of fragrant leaf that I didn't know the name of, and the person teaching me only knew in Khmer. My friends told me it was Kaffir lime leaf.

We had some dried red peppers soaking while we did this. 

Next we blended up the lemon grass, turmeric, Kafir lime leaf, and garlic with..... roasted peanuts! Then, we blended up the red peppers. These two were kept in separate bowls.
Of course, anything Khmer style has all of the bones. They just chop it up, bone and all. We chose to do a chicken version.
One of the coconut vendors nearby had a machine to extract the juice and oil of  the coconut. We started by boiling a small bag of coconut oil/juice to evaporate the water and leave the coconut oil.
When it had evaporated, she added the blended up mixtures and some curry powder.
When the spices were cooked and fragrant, we added the chicken.
After the chicken was well on its way, we added a big bag of coconut milk, (being sure to discard the brown pulpy part in the bottom of the bag from the husk of the coconut) and let it boil a while.
Last, we added salt, a little teaspoon of sugar and vegetables. It is usually cooked with green beans, sweet potato or pumpkin, and onions. I made it with what we had, so regular potatoes, carrot, onion and green beans.

It is usually eaten over rice or with fresh baguettes from the local bakery. Everybody really liked it and asked if we can make it once a week!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Rain, Rides and Random Tidbits

April is usually the hottest month of the year here, making life miserable for the many who live in the provinces without air conditioning, but this month has been different. Rainy season has started a little bit early! This is good for a little cooler weather, but brings its own challenges with the downstairs of many homes flooding and the deep water making roads dangerous.
The buckets were to catch the water from the leaking pipe.

We have it better than many people, but when it rains hard the drain in the downstairs kitchen bathroom begins flooding the house with black stuff. One cleaning lady, for example, says they live with their bottom floor flooded for half of each year because of the poor drainage. Last Saturday it rained really hard and the kitchen flooded, not only the floor, but the sink drains had black stuff coming up out of them. And worms. Yuck. The worms were trying to crawl out of the sink. I kept washing them back down, but it wouldn't drain until much later when it stopped raining. The drain pipe under the sink chose that day to spring a leak along with one of the faucets. I'm thankful for bleach! Of course, people didn't stop getting hungry, so the dishes piled up until that got fixed. I'm thinking next time I should wash them in the bathroom. Though the water draining might still be a problem. I'm sure we'll figure something out.
You can't quite tell, but everything is covered in water...

Next week everyone has a week off for Khmer New Year. Elias and Ezra have been learning a song in Khmer at school.

Zoe smirking before her embassy appointment.
We had our appointment at the embassy to get Zoe her passport. It went smoothly and they said we should have it soon. On the way home it started raining. Most tuk tuks have canvas flaps that they pull down and velcro to the poles when it rains, but this tuk tuk didn't have them. We got a little wet, but after living in deserts, the rain is still nice. I do wonder if that's why Zoe has a cold today, though I kept her wrapped up in her blanket.
You've got to respect a man who can tune his ukulele while holding a baby.

Talia said they had a monkey fall out of a tree into the pool at their school. She was excited to report that monkeys can, in fact, swim, because he swam to the edge and climbed out.
Elias was proud of a sailboat he drew.

Our neighbors have two sons that are really nice and play with our kids. Their father was telling Benjamin about how school works for them here: His son rides his bicycle through city traffic to school and then pays to park it. Then, each day he must pay his teacher 1,000 riel. That adds up to about $5 a month. That doesn't sound like much, but it is for this country. Teachers only make $200 a month here, and that is after the recent raise from the government. That is barely enough for even a frugal Cambodian to make ends meet. Most people live with their families for this reason, in tall houses like this:
Crazy that you can see at least 7 different houses here. Some have more than one family inside.
If you live in a country where education is free, count your blessings!