Saturday, May 05, 2007

Trip to Takeo Province

I had gone to Takeo province, a two-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh with Sok Lee, a very Westernised young Cambodian woman. We had met at an event where we had to make lamps out of natural products and recycled garbage (ours was made out of strips of leaves and coloured plastic woven together—very pretty!) I had gone with my Canadian friend Jolene, an artist, who was the brains behind our team’s design. Jo will be exhibiting a dress at a rubbish recycling fashion show—I’ve had a sneak peek and it is gorgeous. She may just win the contest!

Taking the bus to Takeo is easy. We met at 9am at the Sorya Bus Station near Psar Thmei (Central Market). Tickets cost us 8500 riels (it was only 7000 for the trip home for some strange reason). The bus was comfortable and the air-con worked! The only complaint is that although the road was paved, it was paved only with gravel, which made for a very bumpy ride. My back got really itchy from all that vibrating.

Sok Lee invited me to join her and two other men from an orphanage, to check out a piece of vacant land. We all had ideas of transforming the land for some use, either for the orphans or for Riverkids.

Takeo turned out to be as hot as Phnom Penh and everywhere I could see brown (as opposed to green) padi fields. Ming (Aunty) Vee, our housekeeper, informs me at her province, Baray in Kampong Thom, people start planting rice in May and it’s harvested after three months. The cycle begins again, but the hot season is not conducive for rice growing. Poor families who have no rice to eat during this period have to borrow, sometimes at 100 per cent interest. Ming Vee says they used to borrow 5 bags of rice but have to pay back 8 bags when planting season starts again.

The highlight of my trip has to be taking a lemorque (large cart with wooden planks laid across for benches and towed by a small motocycle). We got on board at the main market in Takeo and waited till the cart was filled with people. We finally took off but continued picking people up along the way. I counted 35 persons. At 500 riels (12.5 cents US) per person, the motocycle driver was making good money!

What struck me was how cooperative and friendly everyone on the lemorque was. Everytime someone tried to board, the rest would make space, lifting heavy baskets to place on their laps, just so that person would have a place on board. I can imagine people would make faces in Singapore. It always struck me as strange how on public buses in Singapore, people would insist on sitting on the outside of a two-seater, to deter others from sitting with them. It’s a big contrast to say, Hong Kong, where at restaurants, you would be seated next to total strangers and everyone would just get on with their eating.

The locals were very friendly and interested in learning about my country and kept staring at this barang. I got a bit uncomfortable when scrutiny turned to my age, marital status and why don’t I have any children? Khmers tend to have a very simple view about such things. Get married by the time you’re in your twenties and have many children. The expectation is the same for both men and women. And if you’re married but childless, they assume you’ve got fertility problems.

However, things will change in Cambodia, as they have in Singapore. Already with Sok Lee I can see how modern Khmer women can become. She is so tech savvy, she was chatting online through her phone on the bus! And she had a 1GB MP3 player which she used to record conversations with locals. It was just like being with a Singaporean.

We visited Sok Lee’s relatives and it really made clear how little there is to do for rural people. They get up early to farm and stop during lunchtime because it’s just too hot. Every house we visited people were sleeping, mostly under the house. There was one woman, a widow with five children. After lunch, they all slept under the house. She works at a garment factory so on most days the kids are left to their own devices. And there are no toys, no TV, no nothing. But kids always find a way to amuse themselves, running around the land, inventing simple games. Just like the kampong days in Singapore. We used to play with marbles and five-stones, 5 small bags filled with rice which we throw and catch, similar to the peanut game Aidan played with his bartender friend in an episode of Sex and the City). Then there is cha-tay and Cambodians play with the exact same toy, a small round rubber pad with feathers sticking out vertically. You’re supposed to keep kicking it and not let it fall to the ground. I suppose it’s not bad. Perhaps it is us city folk who don’t know how to enjoy life, with our stresses and excessive, useless, stimulation.

The land was good for growing palm trees, and you can sell the palm oil, palm sugar and can even make craft out of the leaves. The only problem was hiring someone we can trust to look after it and possibly children. It’s a big problem as everyone we know works in Phnom Penh. Eventually we decided we had to wait and see with regards this land.

I did do one thing though. I saw two very skinny and neglected puppies and arranged for them to be brought to Phnom Penh. I’ve since given one to Sipha, Bloom’s trainer and the other to Neang, the one who used to live in the cement bag house. I am so happy to hear she has upgraded yet again, to a USD15 a month room, with running water and electricity.The wee skinny puppy will have a good home with her as she loves dogs. She is always kissing and hugging Nessie and Austin, and I am happy she now has a dog to call her own.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Bloom Cafe and The Naked Chef

Here I am in my garden café enjoying the cool morning. The rains have started, signalling the end of the hottest season in Cambodia (my private self yells, “Yay!”, while my business self moans “Oh no…”) Would people walk into a garden in the rain?

I had opened the café for three days last week. We had one walk-in customer on the first day, which was encouraging. Deidre said Bloom café is “an oasis” and that she would be back. She works for Licardho, a leading human rights organisation here. It just so happened that my friends Dale and Kerri were around to give me moral support, so everyone got to know everyone. I really hope Bloom can be a place for introductions. For me, one of the best things about living in a place like Phnom Penh is meeting like-minded individuals. Many of the expats come here to help this country and I really enjoy talking with them. Our conversations are so different from those back home, when I was in a corporate job and talk was always about business. I get really annoyed at how much time I wasted when I think back on those networking sessions when everyone was pretending to be interested in the other person and making conversation in the hopes the other party would be useful someday. We really didn’t care about the other person at all.

The second day, a group of four French expats (one from France, one from Congo and two from Ghana) walked in to have coffee. They live just across the street but we have never talked until that day. I found them, especially the two women from Ghana, to be just lovely and now we wave everytime we see each other. That’s the thing about people, I think we don’t mean to be rude—we’re mostly just shy but give us the right circumstance and we open up. Especially us women, nattering on about clothes, haha!

One of the women said to me, “You have the best garden in the city!” It is a very pretty house. I am lucky to have a garden with actual grass—very rare in the city. I find Phnom Penh to be like Singapore in that way. In Singapore, most people cannot be bothered with gardens and pave their outdoors. I suppose it’s much easier to maintain (cutting grass is a pain, but I love pottering around the garden) and busy city people cannot afford the time to prune and water and what have you.

But mostly it was my friends who patronised, which was very, very helpful. I shut the café after the three days to take in all the feedback and to improve till we reopen again after the weekend. The main things I changed were things on the menu, but even lighting and fans. These are things you won’t realise until you actually open. The prefectionist in me kept putting off Bloom café’s opening because I was so nervous things would go wrong. I now realise that things go wrong anyway, despite your best intentions and you just have to go with the flow.

The cook I had hired for dinners told me the day before Bloom café was due to open that she had been given an ultimatum by the boss of the other nearby restaurant she was working at—either work here or there. R had wanted to supplement her income by taking on a part-time job working evenings at Bloom after her shift at the other place ended. As Bloom is just down the street from her other workplace, it would have been ideal for her. I had already voiced my concerns that the boss of the other restaurant would not be happy, but she reassured me numerous times that it was no problem, because it would not affect her work there. I had assumed she had told the other boss.

Turned out she hadn’t, and he later found out, thus the ultimatum. R chose to stay at the more established place, leaving me without a dinner cook on opening day. Fortunately, my day cook is very understanding, and stayed on the whole day. Chanto was previously a cook at the posh Malis restaurant, near Norodom Boulevard, which specialises in Khmer dishes. R would have made a good complement as she specialises in Western food. I was fortunate that Chanto had also trained at the Intercontinental Hotel here in Phnom Penh (for USD20 a month!) and so made a fantastic Oven Baked Bread with Goat Cheese, Mushrooms and Caramelised Onions, topped with Herbs! I mention this only because it was so good Dale had to stop herself from ordering a third plate!

Before R had joined, she had insisted on signing a contract, because there isn’t one where she works, which led to all sorts of issues. I was very disappointed, therefore, when she broke the contract. I shouldn’t generalise, but if this is any indication, I do not understand what a contract means for a Khmer. Presumably I am bound to my word, but not the employee. In another country (the US, namely!) I could sue R and maybe even the (Western) owner of the other restaurant, for inducing R to breach the contract. But this is Cambodia, and we cut our losses and move on.

I probably have not written about Bloom cafe’s mission and all that. The easiest way to understand what we are doing is to think of The Naked Chef's project in London. I think Jamie Oliver's restaurant is called “Fifteen”. I am shamelessly copying Oliver because he has demonstrated that it is possible to train street children in a kitchen through in a profitable restaurant. The Bloom café team (the cook, waiter and Ming Vee, our housekeeper who has been so supportive) all understand the plan. I am planning for half the profits to go to staff and half to return to the business so we can expand and start training “Ait-Jai” children. I call them “Ait-Jai” children because these kids, some who look like 6 year olds to me, go around calling out “Ait-Jai” as they walk around pushing a large wheelbarrow-like cart, collecting rubbish which they fill in the cart. (For Singaporeans, it is like the Karang-guni men we used to have. Now of course, they drive around in big trucks).

Five empty soft-drink cans can fetch 300 riels (less than 10 cents US). I have been told successful “’Ait-Jai” collectors can make 10,000 riels (US2.50) a day, although with so much competition, it is hard to believe they are able to make so much often. Because of the money, one of the challenges Riverkids faces is convincing parents to let their kids go to school instead of collecting rubbish.

The other day R told me her husband saw an “Ait-Jai” man around her age (mid-20s) who had died on the street, they suspect, from sniffing glue and starvation (many street teenagers sniff glue, which makes them lose their appetite). R had cried when she told me this. So many Khmers feel for their fellowmen but are unable to do anything about it. They tell me all the time “Kampuchea bpi-bak” (Cambodia, difficult).


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