‘To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure” – Freya Stark
It’s funny sometimes how it takes longer than anticipated to truly feel at ease in a new place. I’ve come to the conclusion that some places simply may never feel like home – the school floor upon which we slept in Uganda, for example, or the layover area of Helsinki airport.
But really, when it comes down to it, what even is home? We adapt to our present situations, and continue to beat onwards regardless of what came before or what is coming next. Right now I am here, and I have finally begun to adjust to the fact that Cambodia is currently my temporary home, and boy is life here more difficult than I had expected!
It may sound extreme, but I honestly believe that the past two weeks have been some of the most testing of my life, with as many ups and downs as there are staircases to climb to each lesson and each floor within our new schools and homes (that’s a lot!). At first, I didn’t know whether or not I’d stick it. Hell, I still change my mind every couple of hours, and from what I’ve heard from the other interns, many of their stories are similar. In general though, things have finally, finally reached a kind of level enough field where we can live within our means and support ourselves to some extent within this crazy country. For me anyway I think it took longer than I expected for the initial buzz of travelling and being in a new place, with new people, completely alone and self-sufficient to wear off, and I hadn’t honestly taken much of the teaching element of things into consideration.
Luckily I have a bit of teaching experience to stand behind me, and so I wasn’t relying too much on things to be organised for me – I work well on my feet, ‘winging it’ and adapting to unpredictable situations having been a large part of my previous work (grá mo chroí Coláiste Lurgan!!). This is where the main problem lies in Cambodia and with the LoveTEFL programme in particular – the teachers and schools here really had no idea what to expect from us, nor us them. This combination led to several extremely frustrating days of half-teaching, half-observing, being thrown into teacherless classes with no prior knowledge of what had been taught, nor what level of understanding the kids had of English – trial and error was literally the only method we could have used, the mistakes we made seeming even more humiliating due to our total ignorance to even the way the schooldays were laid out, and what the children see when they looked to us – we are only the second pair of Western interns to ever work at this particular branch of NYIS (New York International School).
Our school accomodation and wifi situation has (thankfully) finally been remedied somewhat, and we’ve rearranged our limited kitchen appliances to form a kind of kitchenette area, using some of the tables and chairs from the classrooms as a base. This now means that we can at least stock up our own fridge and prepare some meals at home, although these are still limited to foods that are either microwavable or toastable. Eating out was acceptable for the first week or so, but I feel if we are to truly adapt to living in this city instead of being tourists and properly settle in, it’s simply not sustainable! (Not to mention it being expensive). I don’t think the LoveTEFL organisation took into consideration that some of us are on quite tight travel budgets, and cannot afford to be eating out as regularly as seems to be required – the lack of basic appliances for cooking is testament to this. Also, the fact that there was minimal access to internet until this week was extremely frustrating, especially given the fact we are expected to be planning lessons during the evenings – it just didn’t make sense!
All things aside, overall it seems to have finally taken a turn for the better, or at least levelled out somewhat, the actual teaching element of the programme for me proving actually kind of enjoyable and rewarding when the kids respond and succeed in class. I’ve taught one class the same story in three different accents, and both they and their teachers seem hugely appreciative of the exposure to different pronunciations and intonations of words! Sometimes I think we forget that even our presence here in the schools for the Khmer children is effective in their learning. For them to be exposed to other cultures, languages, and identities is as important as it is for them to be attending school in the first place. It opens their eyes to the world and presents them with knowledge they might use to help themselves in the future, language being the key to any sort of communication, be it on an academic, emotional, or spiritual level.
What it was for us as kids to walk down the street – our countries being far more multicultural and multi-denominational in population, is similar now to what we are providing by our presence in the schools, many of them functioning on extremely limited resources and funding.
I don’t want to speak too soon or jinx things, but I am finally feeling somewhat more at ease here, and useful during the schoolday!
Our weekend was spent in the Lovely Jubbly Villa hostel in Phnom Penh, a quieter and more relaxed spot than the Mad Monkey of last weekend, although we did go out anyway for Halloween and watch the Rugby World Cup final in the Aussie XL bar not too far away. On Saturday myself and one of the other interns booked a tour with Nature Cambodia to visit The Killing Fields Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, and see the surrounding villages via quad bike – something I’ll admit I was really excited to try!
It was a good mix of a serious versus fun afternoon, as the sombre content of The Killing Fields was made up for by the exhilaration of the orange dirt tracks our guide Johnny took us around on the quad bikes. At one point it felt like freedom was the orange, blue and green hues that surrounded us on all angles, and we returned to our tuk-tuks feeling like we’d gotten our money’s worth. It’s worth mentioning here that this tour was extremely well organised, and from each pickup, drop off and switch over to another element of the tour it flowed seamlessly – one of the first times since arriving to Cambodia that something has actually seemed to work out without a hitch!
It was sobering to think of the tragedies which occurred at Choeung Ek, but I feel it was a necessary insight into the country’s history which left us more aware and appreciative of the successes of the country today, and how far it has come to escape the Khmer Rouge regime.
We made our way back to the hostel, ready to leave the haunting images of the fields behind and sample the yummy food and drinks menus that really added to the Lovely Jubbly experience, along with the pool, with the prices proving a lot more affordable than those at the Mad Monkey. We even started to find our way around the city a bit as we made our way on foot to and from several places – something that I myself had been hesitant to try until then. Next weekend we’ve booked a stay at the sister branch of the Mad Monkey in Kampot which is a couple of hours outside the city –a break from Phnom Penh that I personally am really looking forward to!
Til’ then….keep on tuk-tuk’in!
Lovely Jubbly Hostel Website / Facebook / Trip Advisor
Nature Cambodia Website
Tso Sleung Museum on Trip Advisor
Aussie XL Bar Website / Facebook / Twitter
The Mad Monkey Hostel / Facebook / Twitter / Trip Advisor