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.

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!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ukuleles and Fat Babies

Since Ben learned piano from an early age, and he's just smart in general, picking up new instruments isn't very hard for him. Hauling a piano, even a keyboard, around the world is hardly practical. Something small like a ukulele or a guitar is perfect, though. Ben says that learning on something so small will help make a guitar feel spacious, since the fingering is always challenging with his big hands.
Elias is proud of himself for learning the one string to push down to make a C chord.

There are several sizes of ukulele, at least three. We have the smallest. This one and one a size up have the same fingering but the baritone ukulele is played like a guitar (with four strings.)

The kids love singing along with Ben or trying to play too. Since it is a really cheap instrument, it's a little easier to let them try a few chords. Zoe even likes the music.

Can you tell how big she's getting at two months compared to Talia's doll?
Here it is almost a symbol of affluence and pride to have a fat baby. Cambodians often come up to Zoe and pat her leg or cheek approvingly because she's a chubby baby. Sometimes this cultural desire can have less appealing affects. Some babies here who are formula fed are over-fed on purpose to appease the family's desire for a fat baby.(Being able to afford formula instead of breastfeeding is also a sign of wealth, sadly.) I have seen sumo-wrestler-looking babies that were grotesquely overweight and unable to walk until a later age carried everywhere by a mother. I think a chubby baby looks healthier than a skinny one, but I've never seen it taken to extremes like that before. 

I'm thankful for a healthy baby and music in our home!

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.