— This morning in the dorm lounge I watched Hellboy dubbed in Khmer and subtitled in English.

–A girl said to me today: “I think you are polite and lovely… and attractive, too.” This is totally common. They tell me every day how pretty I am. I have never been so flattered on the constant.

–One girl had been given a worksheet for her English class (at the university) that was on her level linguistically but conceptually far below her intellect. Basically, it was a drawing of a children’s party in a classroom and it asked her to describe  the picture. It’d be in a third-grade workbook in the US. In her paragraph of “what’s happening in this picture” she managed to work in how children’s rights are important and parents and community members must work together to support their education.

–Sometimes my bag is like the Room of Requirement. I’d been pining for a tweezers (haven’t found one here) and then one tumbled out of a pocket of my napsack today — packed for a long-ago trip.

Malls; motos; ‘are they happy?’

The moto is the primary form of transport in Phnom Penh. Honda scooters in various states of repair and disrepair buzz in all directions through all streets; people carry multiple family members and stepladders and unplucked but dead chickens live chickens hanging by their feet and monks in saffron robes and entire windowpanes – maybe two. I ride on the back of a moto (wearing a helmet!) at least once a day. I usually ask the same moto driver for a ride because he speaks fairly good English and lives near the dorm. (He has a sweet little family, too, and every dollar I give him supports them as well, so that’s a cool side bonus.)

Last night as we were rounding a traffic circle and weaving through the many motos, he asked, “Are there this many motos like this, at this time of night in the US?” Our main commonality is in fact traffic, so this made sense as a topic. No, I explained, it’s mostly cars… some motos, mostly cars.

This morning over watermelon (see previous entry), M. asked me the same question. She explained how in Cambodia, once a kid turns 16 or they graduate from high school, they ask their parents for a moto.  I said:

–It’s the same in the U.S. but with cars. … I didn’t have a car, though. My parents couldn’t afford it. I had to ask people for rides.

–[She laughs at me, a hybrid sympathy/teasing giggle, and sticks up her thumb.]  Hitchhike?

–No, no, hitchhiking, too dangerous.

–So why is there no train or bus where you are from?

–I’m from… the suburbs. There was no reason to build a train because everyone already had a car. [Yes, I realize my logic was falling apart here…]

–How long does it take to get to the city?

–About a half an hour… but no one really goes to the city.

–What about for the market?

[Here’s where my brain got squirmy as the difference between life here and there expanded.]

–Oh, we have lots of shopping. We don’t need to go to the city… there’s big stores everywhere. Like the supermarket. There’s stores named Target and Wal-Mart and… lots of malls…

[The super markets here are very deluxe-y and look like shopping malls. Regular people shop in markets, rich people go to the supermarket and also buy sparkly jewelry there. Apparently.]

–So people buy a lot of things?

–Welll…. sort of. People do buy things. But sometimes people just go to a mall and hang out. They walk around with their friends and don’t buy anything.

–[She looks astounded.] Are they happy?

–Um… That’s a really good question.

Who Stepped on My Watermelon?

Every day there’s a fruit break of some sort. Someone buys a bag of fruit from somewhere (market trip, passing seller, etc.) and an insta-picnic begins. One girl grabs ceramic bowls, another the (very large) cleaver, another gets chairs, someone starts to slice or peel — speedy, clockwork-like, and the gossip and relaxation begins, a thirty-minute respite from a hardworking day. I’ve tried a bunch of new fruits. Brown grape-sized spheres with husks, peel to reveal a jelly-like fruit surrounding a pit, slick the fruit off with your tongue. Fuzzy brown seed pods filled with sweet tamarind paste. Something that looked like a bit of chopped-off cactus. I always have to ask for operating instructions from one of the girls, who is always super-amused that I need help with something so simple.

Today, though. Today was watermelon. And I know how to eat watermelon. “Do they have this watermelon in the U.S.?” one asked. “Oh yes,” I said. “In the summer. Only for a few months a year.”

Then S. began to tell her watermelon story. In Khmer. I had no idea what she was saying, but she spoke animatedly and was cracking up the half-dozen girls who were munching on watermelon chunks and slicing new ones with the cleaver. I wanted to know what the joke was. She didn’t want to tell me in English. I’m thinking, what kind of joke is she telling? What could possibly be so side-splittingly funny about watermelon?

Finally the other girls persuaded her to give it a try, even though she was nervous about her English. And here’s the gist of it:

She went to a relative’s farm and in the field she saw a little watermelon. It was so cute, and she wanted to eat it, but it was too young to eat right then. She didn’t want anyone else to find it, though! Someone might come along and pick her perfect watermelon! So she decided to hide it. She buried it in the ground and thought it would be ok there while it continued to grow. She wanted to save it for six days.

After six days she returned to the spot where her little watermelon was buried.

“But it was broken!” she said, laughing.

“A cow came along and stepped on it,” Marady explained. “The cow didn’t know.”

Their comic timing was so awesome that I, too, was just rolling on the floor over this watermelon debacle. And it made me realize a few things. 1) Humor can be pretty universal. 2) I have never, ever valued a watermelon so much that I tried to save it from all harm until it was fully grown. So maybe I should take better care to love things I’d consider ordinary. and 3) Maybe this is a self-help book in the making. You think you have it all figured out, you bury your watermelon for later… but then along comes a cow.

Inadvertent Vocabulary Lessons

Phrases I’ve used and had to explain/teach:

–“Stressed out”

–“No wonder”

–“What are you up to?”

–“Sticking your tongue out”.

This last one was awesome because about five girls all started to stick their tongues out at me and say, “Sticking your tongue out! Sticking your tongue out!”

The Night of 70 Pancakes

The founder of the dorm where I’m living, who’s an American, started a tradition: When he comes to town, he makes pancakes. Or, more accurately, everyone makes pancakes.

By the time we’re ten pancakes in, I’m spattered and battered, my hair back in a scarf, hot oil, hot pancakes, hot kitchen. We’ve got a top-notch operation: Two frying pans downstairs, two in the upstairs kitchen. Each station has its own crowd of helpers. One girl ladles batter, one checks the edges for done-ness, one spoons oil.  I’m flipping. Between the two kitchens, we need to make 70 pancakes, because there’s a hungry crowd outside.

Basically the girls are acting like the Beatles have come to town. There’s screeching and jumping, squealing and singing. I have never seen such exuberance over breakfast — and I like me some breakfast. But breakfast in Cambodia looks a lot like lunch and dinner, rice with meat and vegetables. So … this was like saying: TONS AND TONS OF DESSERT FOR EVERYONE!

Soon it’s a free-for-all; as pancakes come off the stove, the girls slather them in Ratanakiri honey and jam. I’m still flipping, but they keep handing me stuff to eat while we cook — chunks of sticky sweet dragon fruit, the juice and seeds dribble down my wrist; and of course — pancakes. At some point they learn to cook them into heart shapes, and they pass one around and pose with it, like it’s a celebrity.

The power of changing expectations, or: How I learned to take a cold shower

I love long, hot showers. Decadent steamy showers, 20 or even 30 minutes long, with too much sudsy soap. I don’t think about all the energy wasted; the gas bill can go to hell. Showertime.

There is no hot water in this dorm.

The first day was impossible. I stood there with soap in my hand feeling shivery and miserable, then turned on the water, which was a sad trickly stream, and did some crazed half-in, half-out dance. After about thirty seconds, I bailed. On day two, small progress. I realized you can do a lot without the water actually on, and you can turn it on for rinsing purposes. So I conquered a tiny bit of shampooing in addition to the world’s fastest soap-up, and rinsed under the sad trickly stream of coldness.

Day three, though — a breakthrough. I finally asked one of the girls about a burning (ha) question. In each of the shower stalls, there’s what looks like a plastic saucepan hanging on a hook. I learned: The shower head is broken. Fill up the pan with water from the faucet-style tap in the stall and rinse that way.

The first pan of cold water that I sluiced over my head felt truly miserable. Same for the second and third. But by the fourth, I’d mastered a slow, less-panicky pouring motion, and it began to dawn on me that this was not a shower. In a good way. Yeah, I was naked and sudsing shampoo around in the vicinity of water. But I’d been thinking of this as “a cold shower” — aka, a terrible version of something I really like. Instead this more closely resembled (drum roll)….a swimming pool in tiny doses.

This discovery made me laugh — which probably sounded very strange to anyone else in the bathroom. But I feel cleaner than I have in days.