Preface.

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I have changed my mind.

I am no longer going to Chicago.

I am going to New York.

Pretty simple way to express a pretty major change – they call me Master of Understatement you know.  I received Columbia’s offer a leisurely 12 hours before the closing deadline for Chicago’s offer, having completely given up getting into Columbia at all, and I couldn’t keep my feet on the ground. I followed my instincts, cancelled Chicago and accepted Columbia. In just a few slightly underwhelming mouse-clicks I completely changed the course of my life. (I had been hoping for a swelling big band soundtrack and star spangled confetti.) I didn’t even tell my parents when I actually did it because Mum was in Voice of Reason mode. She reminded me that we had a plan, that Chicago was the plan. She was trying to stop me getting high on yellow cab fumes and whirling off into some dizzy fantasy about pretzels and walks in Central Park: jumping in before I had really thought about it all. (I only found out later she’d been rooting for Columbia all along! Cheeky Mummy.) However, in a very sedate and adult fashion, I completely abandoned the plan, pulled the old bait and switch then boogied around the kitchen squeaking incomprehensibly. I think my parents could just about make out the words “Big Apple” and so figured out that I’d jumped the Chicago ship for a posting on the USS New York City.

I am, however, I can confess to my trusted reader, nervous in a very strange way. I haven’t written a word in a very long time because I suddenly feel as if each one has to be a diamond. I have declared myself utterly. I want to be an academic and I have taken the first few steps to achieving that goal. I have a shiny red, white and blue visa in my passport. I have a place at an Ivy league University. I am beginning to truly believe that not only do I deserve it, but also that I can fill it. Not just that I can take it up but that I can really fill it out, ease myself into it like the perfect reading chair and rest every inch of myself upon it. I also have a new haircut. Very important that last one.

Now that I have selected a destination and am gathering myself to set off for it I find I am mourning the loss of other options. They are lofty things, impossible dreams and not viable in the slightest. 1) Embody Lara Croft and travel the world, saving it every day by unraveling obscure mythology while generally thwarting villains with plummy accents and formidably armed personal security forces. 2) Retrain as a doctor, join Unicef and heal sick babies. 3) Become a ferociously talented ballet dancer and live out my days backstage at the Royal Opera House. 4) Become Benedict Cumberbatch’s trophy wife. The traitorous, chilly, realistic part of my prefrontal cortex knew all along I would never do these things. Yet actually embarking on a path that precludes them, that wipes them out with its unwavering reality, its (not a little unfriendly) staunch validity nonetheless leaves me nervous of writing. I have made the choice, I have accepted the place, filled out the forms, applied for housing, met the dean of studies, goggled at the campus… now all I have to do is actually live out that choice. Easy right! Breeze. Central Park cakewalk. Right?

Wrong. Now every tap at the keys carries the weight of validating that choice. All of a sudden I feel the need to be a genius. No matter what, I must cram every syllable with effervescent wit and resonating wisdom, like lovechild of Yoda and Caitlin Moran. Not to mention the troll under the creative bridge that is Originality. I can’t be the only student (for I am a student once more) that has nightmares about a towering monster, the queasy, oozing shadow on the library wall, composed of ineptly deployed punctuation marks and threatening to beat me about the derivative cranium with a copy of 50 Shades of Grey. Can I?

Of course, just at the time I am least verbose, I have metric tonnes of stuff to chitter about. My trip to New York. The stationery show. Seeing Columbia’s campus. My first whoopie pie. Coming back and going to Mayerling. Seeing To Kill A Mockingbird at the Regent’s Park open air theatre. My American visa interview. I don’t even know where to begin!

So I’m asking a favour of you. Please, give me a couple of days and I’ll figure it all out, I’ll conquer my writer’s block, sift my memories for the fun ones, weed out the slow bits and be back in a jiffy.

Promise.

xxx

Tsk Tsk

I’m going to preface this by owning up to being a total goon. A feckless dork flails before you now, plucking aimlessly at the interweb in the impotent hope of reaching you. Guess who took the time to draft a little comic gold mine at the time of her last post, who painstakingly noted the many-carat comedy genius that would be this post. And guess who , 100% vintage Luddite that she is… Forgot to save said draft. Who, like a technophobic fool, carelessly closed WordPress and swanned off into the rest of her day downright smug in the unshakable belief that she was the best goddam writer ever to grace wifi!? Yep. Me.
But
Having taken a deep breath and counted to 10, then completely forgotten about the whole debacle for a few weeks, I’m ready to have another crack at it.
I’ll start with
The Robbie Vendetta
A few weeks into my time at HVC a merry band of Americans showed up. Sue, ever eager to snap up passers by, had nonetheless given no thought whatever to what the new volunteers would actually do. Robbie got the short straw and was duly abandoned to the snotty, thumb sucking, Lego-throwing, sharing-free zone that was “kindergarten.”
Interestingly I’m pretty sure that kindergarten hadn’t existed before the Americans showed up, and went right on back to not existing when they left. Sue promptly launched a one-woman war on Robbie’s child-care skills, wagging her gnarled finger at him and generally balling him out whenever she had enough puff and the vaguest hint of an excuse. By some strange matronly alchemy she was the only one who knew the actual number of kids meant to be in Robbie’s class, which essentially meant she had a ready-made reason to condemn him as an awful teacher whenever she felt like it, since the odds of that number of kids actually being present under house 4 at 9am for a whole hour were vanishingly small. She miscalculated however, her agenda was based on one fatally flawed assumption: that Robbie cared a fart in space about her opinion of his child-wrangling capabilities. In fact, no offence Robbie, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the plight of the orphans that lured you and your ubiquitous baseball cap to Cambodia. I’m thinking something more like the ready availability of beer for 50 cents or less might have a little to do with it. Having said this even those of us blithely hoping to save the world one rugrat at a time know that it is physically impossible for small human beings to remember that the pink paintbrush is only used for pink paint, the blue one for blue and that peculiarly nauseating shades of brown have no place in art class. Or, as a few of my shirts found out, that teachers are not canvases. Sorry Sue, we are none of us perfect people… Let alone perfect teachers.

Public safety notice: no orphans were harmed in the making of this anecdote.

Xx

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Don’t forget to brush.

Lets talk about ruins.

The complete and utter absence of ruins in my return to Cambodia has only highlighted for me the total ruin overdose I gave myself on my first foray into Khmer culture. Don’t worry, I’m not going to be as stuffy as it sounds. How about we start here:

Recognise that? Yep. Sunrise over Angkor Wat. From start to finish this day was a surreal one. Not least because it began at 3am. Anyone who has met the blind, fuzzy, snuffling creature that is me before breakfast will have a vague idea what 3am did to me. But post-shower, equipped with contacts and a couple of pancakes (Cambodia knows all about early starts!) I was just about human enough to jump into the waiting tuk tuk with my guide and set off… into the utter blackness of pre-dawn Siem Reap.

Naturally our path was lit by the flimsy blue glow of a mobile phone. Ah, Cambodia.

We pull up to a patch of smudges in the blackness, and my still-sleeping eyes work hard to pick out tiny points of light. They are a little way ahead of me, swirling in great circular eddies, twitching and jerking, some breaking off from the main body briefly before careening back. They are the torches of tourists in the night. My guide and I add our own white speck to the myriad and climb the shallow stone steps, worn smooth and hollowed out in the centre by centuries of sleepy dawn-seekers’ feet. Above the heavy silence peculiar to rural places, the slap and brush of flip flops is loud upon the stone bridge as we cross the bridge over the moat. People speak in whispers, unconsciously conforming to the natural hush of darkness. We shuffle on, out of our element in the torch-spotted darkness, unsure on the changeable surface of ancient stone beneath our feet.

But then the spell is broken.

Mosquitoes.

Thousands of them, careening into our moths, up our noses, whining about our ears in unknowable numbers. They throng about our bare throats and wrists, alive to the blood in our veins and oblivious to the rage they’re causing. Hands go up to cover mouths, heads go down to protect nostrils, minds drift back to the bottle of deet on the bedside table; unsure if it was deployed or not… praying it was.

But then the torture passes, we are across the bridge and soon a safe distance from the buzzing moat. There is the first hint of light in the sky, pupils contract slightly, the muscles behind eyes relax as straining to see becomes, moment by moment, less necessary. The column of pilgrims dissipates as people scatter among the stones to find a perch from which to gaze. My guide shows me a spot, then politely withdraws that I may enjoy the morning in the appropriate solitude. I nestle into a corner, resting my back against weather-worn grey stone and tuck my legs up against my chest. The rock breathes chill into my back through my thin shirt as I let my head rest against the wall, fixing my eyes on the sky.

Gradually black night ebbs into grey dawn, it melts into the grey stone of this most ancient of buildings. I am grateful for the muted browns and greens of my clothes. Anything brighter would have seemed… unkind. Unthinking somehow, in the panorama of gentle grey.

Lighter and lighter grows the sky as each moment passes. My mind wanders, seeks out old snippets of poetry, hums half-forgotten songs, remembers old friends and family left far behind at home, walks a little way into the future and wonders about my return to them, dreams idly of staying here forever. The sky takes on a little of the familiar blue among the grey. Over across the water, behind the famous moulded stones, a globe of orange has risen into sight and begins to glow.

“I use colgate myself!”

The peace snaps like an old ruler flicked once too often in the hands of the child beleaguered by boredom in class. I turn my head and there, at ground level to my right, squats a large family. The criminal against quiet has his back to the sunrise. His back! Turned foolishly toward the whole point of his being there! He expounds the virtues of his maximised smile. At length. He’s wearing bright orange.

And so it goes.

xx

Sigh

Everyone knows the worst thing about tourist destinations, right? Say it with me now… TOURISTS.

Tourists are the reason intrepid travellers, intent on freedom of spirit – the kind of freedom you get from carrying your whole life in a rucksack – get stuck with shoddy vistas like this:

Wonderfully crumbling, history-steeped ruins in the background…. garbage bin in the foreground. And all because tourists can’t be trusted to take their detritus with them.
Or you might get a scene like this:
Because tourists like to climb things and then fall off them. Like that Korean couple Chua Hwei told me about who fell down this:
You get this too:
Because apparently tourists like to crawl under things as well, and then act all surprised when thousand year old masonry caves in on them and crushes them into arrabiatta.
Relatives are never too thrilled about these events. They tend to be annoyed at not being invited on what turned out to literally be the trip of a life time and, in a fit of pique, sue the state back into the bronze age.
Thus…
The most utterly depressing thing about all this is that irreverence is infectious. I found myself brashly munching an apple while gazing out over this:
And casually parking my backside on things like this:
In my defence though, it’s useless to try for awe, it really is. Take for example this scene:
I was really having a crack at breathing it all in, feeling that peace which rises up out of the ground in places of human significance. Places that are haunted by the footsteps of others, others that have strode by where you stand, others that have paused in the same wonder you do. Hundreds of years’ worth of humanity hangs palpably about you. Up through your feet rises a feeling of belonging, a shadow of the men that dug the foundations beneath your trainers. As you raise your head toward the heavens and gaze at exquisitely, patiently, lovingly carved stone, which has withstood an age of wind and rain to stand before you as breathlessly imposing as when first it was built, it is as if all the lives this place has seen coalesce about you and you are, truly, a part of the great striving mass of man that seeks for greatness.
Until you notice that the woman in front of you is a fool. And that the navy blue panties she has imbecilically picked out that morning are clearly visible through her white shorts.
It’s tough to feel much pride in your fellow humans when they can’t even pick their knickers properly.
Ciao
xx

Please check your marbles at the door.

Roll up roll up one and all!

Please keep your arms, legs and super esophageal ganglions inside the ride at all times.

And whatever you do… Don’t. Look. Down.

Yep, Cambodia is a circus, a roller coaster ride and a high wire act all swirled into one heady mulch of total insanity. At this point I beg your indulgence while I violently shoe horn a literary reference between bouts of ranting:

“In the tropics one must before everything keep calm… Du calm, du calm.” I take (probably too much) pleasure in the fancy that Joseph Conrad is talking here of people tasked with teaching children English from the single worst publication ever vomited up by American printworks…. the Let’s Go! series.

Either that or he’s talking about people who have been forced to participate in polite conversation with one of Ma Susan’s many cats… One or the other. After all there’s only so much Oh Be Thoughtful, Oh Be Gentle, Oh Be Kind, Oh Be Thankful or…. I forget the other one’s name… really have to say. Except of course when they maroon themselves in the plastic sheeting of the ceiling above my classroom… then they won’t shut up!

Suffice it to say; keeping your cool here is far from easy.

On this subject I can actually very deftly return to telling you about my class, because I have left the most maddening for last. Even in my brief tenure as purveyor of knowledge I have learned to beware the back of the classroom… and I think many teachers might be caught rolling their eyes at the mention of the back of the classroom, as an apparition of a particular student appears before them to taunt them with class clowning, shoddy manners and a general malaise of poor attitude.

Ring Leader of Cirque du Back Row is the inimitable Somnang. The broadest swathe of his crummy behaviour is simply not doing the work. Other heads diligently bend. Other tongues work their way between teeth. Other brows furrow. Other sweaty fingers clasp leaky biros. Not Somnang though. He simply doesn’t write. I’m not sure by what alchemy he manages to look busy enough to fly under teacher-on-the-lookout-for-laziness radar but it’s often a good while before I spot his utterly blank page. Even when I wised up I found it hard to take time out from helping students who were actually making an effort to stand menacingly over one that doesn’t bother. Not that I’m all that menacing: at 5ft 3in I can barely reach to brush the underside of intimidating, but I do my best to scowl with the meanest of them and it works about 30% percent of the time…. on children under 12 at any rate.

One lesson took the durian flavoured biscuit though. Day of Birdcalls nearly unhinged me. Somnang hunkered in his den at the back right of the classroom, and proceeded to fill the airwaves with weird bird noises. In the way of young people on a mission to annoy he managed to imbue each one of these wordless cries with the impression of having said “Huh?” or “What?” You know “what” with extra a’s in it, like “whaaaaaat?” If it had been the UK he’d have been cloaked in a hoodie, belligerantly shrugging his shoulders and tauntingly waving his palms at the sky as if to say “I’m not actually doing anything wrong. You can’t get angry at me without betraying to everyone how totally irrational you are.” Kind of like when you’re 8 years old and someone hovers their finger right in front of the bridge of your nose so that the whole top half of your faces starts to tingle and then yells that you can’t get annoyed because they’re “Not touching you! Not touching you! Not touching you!” How did I make it all the way from one side of childhood to the other and not realise how utterly, completely, intensely, debilitatingly and awfully annoying we all were!?!

Back to class and me trying not to lose it. Keeping the attention of 7-11 year olds is a challenge unto itself. Keeping the attention of Cambodian 7-11 year olds is double the challenge since they literally love nothing more than giggling and games. Keeping the attention of 13 7-11 year olds in an open plan classroom with 35 other children within hearing distance, many of whom having nothing better to do than charge around your chunk-of-the-dining-room-masquerading-as-a-classroom making motorbike noises and crashing into each other is totally impossible.

I took in Somnang’s workbook the other day. There’s almost nothing in it at all. Except the odd artless doodle of that yellow angry bird that you tap to put into hyperdrive. And a few dusty red thumbprints.

The battle for sanity is ongoing.

See you next time. 🙂

xxx

Don’t sweat it.

Come, pull up a pew in Hell, where the fires burn all night and life is a sauna from sunup to sundown!

Well, not really, just come to Cambodia in April and realise the human body’s ability to vent moisture from every single pore.

I can, without any hyperbole, exaggeration or over dramatisation, assure you than I have never been this hot or this soaked in sweat in my entire life. What I described as hot when I was here in January was nothing, NOTHING, compared to this barometer-busting thermal lunacy! I can’t believe people come here for romantic trysts, it’s about the least sexy place in the world. My hair is constantly stuck to the back of my neck and my temples. Skirts have an unerring ability to glue themselves to the backs of damp thighs. Every time I sit down I have to peel my flesh away from the chair before I can stand up again. Alluring I am most definitely not! And yet…

Nope, just teasing. Personal life staying personal this time. But I can tell you about the HVC kids.

Hmm, who to start with? How about Srey Pi, a front row fixture with a cherub’s face and the confidence of a traumatised field mouse. Each and every piece of work is met by her imploring face looking up into mine: “tell me how to do it” she says with her puckered eyebrows. Give her enough time and enough reassurance though and she pulls through. If only we could find enough time and man hours to really get her alphabet up to scratch. But this is Cambodia: welcome to the epicentre of all frustration on the planet. To the right of Pi is Sopheak, unfailingly diligent and with handwriting that would make angels weep he is, unfortunately, terminally to be confused with LyHak, for the depressingly simple reason that LyHak sits directly behind him and is a similar proponent of the killer hardworking & neat combo. They look absolutely nothing alike though. Sopheak has a round face and big smily eyes, while LyHak looks a little older and wears a permanent look of polite worry. To LyHak’s left we find Rithy (pronounced “Raty”) who is the most insanely adorable creature I had ever seen. Pocket-size, missing his front teeth and with his voice rarely raised above a whisper he’s easy to miss. Overlook at your peril though; since his worksheets are often peppered with beautifully drawn fire breathing robots or gorily detailed skulls and crossbones, you’ll be quick to revise your view of meek-seeming little Rithy.

One up from this silent little boy in his purple shorts is Enan, and in the way that opposites will find each other she is the loudest of my cohort. Bright as a button, sharp as a tack and any other intelligence-related similes you can think up, this girl is quick to learn and eager to impress with it. I’ll be honest: she scared the living daylights out of me my first few days on the job. The striking thing about Enan is her anger. It’s just below the surface, suspicious and mistrustful of newcomers she glares out from under her fringe and freezes the very air in your lungs. But then, then something mesmerising happens. She warms up to you and suddenly she smiles. It’s, no joke, like the sun breaking out from behind black clouds. Before you know it you’re the proud recipient of spontaneous hugs and beautifully rendered Angry Bird’s drawings with badly spelled declarations of friendship and love on them. In fact, the single most tear-jerking part of my time here has been the trickle of little notes that find their way into your fingers after class, or before lunch break or after meditation. You feel tiny fingers plucking at your own and before you can turn to see who it is that wants your attention they’ve flitted away leaving only a tiny square of grubby paper with brightly felt-tipped messages of love hidden inside them. I’ll say one thing though. Enan has god awful handwriting! Hey, you can’t have it all, can you?

Next to her is Loma: parrot, class clown, perpetual cheat and smart aleck. In that naivety of new teachers I began by believing him one of the smartest in the class. It didn’t take long for me to realise that more than half his work is the product of Enan’s mind, and that Loma’s own grasp of English is, well, woeful. My heart bleeds to watch him struggling to pick from that dizzying whirl of 26 foreign shapes and scrawls he needs to begin the word “yes.” But I have faced the diminutive yet powerful wrath of defied childhood and separated him from Enan. He has to work harder, his mouth turns down at the corners more often and the cheeky high-pitched mimicking of my voice has dwindled to silence. But he will learn, and I’ll just have to suck it up and be ok with getting fewer hugs from him at meditation.

Heading back a row we meet Khanoeng; a solid classroom presence with direct, belligerent eyes who, I have to confess, I find utterly maddening. No sooner has a worksheet hit the table than he’s looking at me like I stole his lunch and declaring ” ‘cher. No.” This roughly translates to “Excuse me Teacher but I don’t understand.” It takes every particle of my tenuous self control not to tear my hair out and yell “I know you don’t understand! I haven’t explained yet!!!” That’s not even the worst of it. When I count to ten under my breath and carefully inform Khanoeng that no, I know he doesn’t understand but that I am about to explain… he proceeds to STARE INTO SPACE AND NOT LISTEN TO A SINGLE WORD!!!! Then, sure enough, as other heads that have been attentively turned toward me while I cover the points of what the questions require them to do, bend low over scratching pencils and decade-old biros, up with come the cry. ” ‘cher. No.” And so I must sigh to myself, bite my tongue on the colourful language I can be so unfortunately prone to, and perch myself on his desk to take him through it question by question. To be fair he is not like this at all times. Some days he even participates. On those days I catch myself fearing that the apocalypse will indeed be in 2012. When I found out he was Enan’s brother I flat out couldn’t believe it.Until creative writing class that is.

These kids have very little training in the art of thinking for themselves. So I decided, much to Wa (my translator’s) chagrin, to host a creative writing experiment. I told my kids to write whatever they wanted, about their friends, their family, their likes, dislikes and dreams. I covered the board with prompts; pictures of weather, animals, toys, boats, planes, bikes, fruit, vegetables. I scattered a few books through the class, got a few volunteers to come up and write the Khmer for “story,” “idea” and “dream” on the board. I had them chanting the word imagination. I told them this was not an exercise in precision English but rather an experiment in “Im – a – gin – a – tion.” Or at least, that’s what I intended. Wa seemed horrified at the idea of free will and bad English taking precedent over copying perfect sentences that had no meaning or relevance off the board. And since he makes no secret of believing himself both more intelligent and a better teacher than me, I doubt very much that his offended sensibilities faithfully related my care-free and inspirational intentions. Which is a bit rich really! From someone who spends most of every lunch break quizzing the various volunteers as to the proper names of every single item on the gerry-rigged dining table anyway. And yet, in the midst of Wa’s infuriating discouragement, correction, intimidation and superiority, sat Khanoeng. Pen did not leave paper for one moment and a stream of messy, stilted, faulty, ugly, gloriously individual English was the magical result! I could have tap danced right there under Wa’s upturned nose.

I have to go now: according to the mystifying wisdom of my tuk tuk driver I have rain fever and my concentration is disintegrating like one of the many roadkill frogs on Route 6 once the red ants get to it.

So bye for now, but more soon. I promise.

See you there I hope.

xxx

Look out! Khmer drivers about!

Ok, so having found sanctuary from obnoxious tourists with pride in the strength of their hangovers…. Back to bike drama!

I haven’t ridden a bike since pigtails were the height of fashion. But they say you never forget, and although they turn out to be right, what they don’t mention is the Cambodian highway! The way to Honour Village follows National Route 6. It’s the biggest, and hence busiest, stretch of road in Siem Reap and it’s a straight shot from the airport to the centre of town. Trying to explain using the roads here will involve some rather inventive metaphor, so bear with me please. Imagine you’re the marble in a pinball machine… or the puc in an ice hokey match… Gulliver on Brobdingnag (check me out: literary reference!)… Simba caught in the stampede. Are we seeing a pattern here? For drivers here the only rule is that rules are for wusses. Traffic lights are optional, right of way is fiction, everyone drives on the side of the road that suits them best and running over Westerners is hilarious. Now everybody race to their destination. Ready. Steady. Go!

But I’ve skipped ahead of myself again. All that fun only begins when I make it to the actual road. Between Prom’s and the road is…well, a stretch of rubble. There are renovations going on and the builders thought a good old fashioned game of Trip The Tourist was in order so the smashed up contents of an entire building have been emptied into the street for people who were not born wearing flip flops to sprawl spectacularly over, or for audacious cyclists to give every one of their 206 bones a good rattling.

So, over the shards of brick we go, turn right, pause briefly at red light, shoot it and join the stream of traffic racing hectically out of town. Some of the wheels on the road belong to things even my overactive imagination cannot reasonably call a vehicle: a motorbike connected by a few lengths of string to a disarticulated wheelbarrow supporting a crew of acrobatic Khmer, transporting lengths of steel pipe to yet another hotel building site along route 6 while the driver balances his cargo with whichever hand he needs less to steer doesn’t really belong in the same category as a car… or even my rusty old bike with it’s lovely habit of leaning to the left and leaking air out of the rear tyre.

Having said all this I have become very attached to my ride to work. After a risky dash across a roundabout you come to the royal gardens. In the morning they’re just a sudden patch of beautifully manicured emerald green garden in the midst of red dust and moto exhaust fumes, in the evening though the smell of jasmine is intoxicating and I’ve been known to take the long route home just to breathe deeply of air that doesn’t smell like cow dung and durian. (For those innocent souls unaware of the reek of durian please, do your utmost to stay in blissful ignorance; it’s a piquant mix of rotting fish and raw sewage.) Then there comes a pagoda that more often than not is hosting a wedding so I’m treated to a glimpse of brightly coloured traditional Khmer outfits. They really are wonderfully exotic, like birds of paradise each one brighter than the one before and weighed down with shining gems and gold, the women have their hair piled in high ringlets on the tops of their heads and the men stand sombre and proud with hands behind their backs. The warble of prayers and music floats into the sky and over the golden roof of the pagoda. The whole thing makes my heart soar. No matter how many times I see it. Then on through a cloud of incense at the statue of Buddha and, at last, on to route 6.

Here the careening trucks, Lexuses, motos, bikes, cows and green-shrouded road sweepers are easier to dodge. And a mere 20 minutes later I’m turning left onto the track that is the last 15 or so minutes’ ride to HVC. There’s a school and a small stretch of lean-to houses and shops where the locals yell hello from their hammocks and the kids wave from the backs of their parents’ motos. When it comes, the change to rural farm land is sudden and immediate. The civilisation drops away and the landscape stretches out in front and to both sides, flat and seemingly endless. The path is flanked by rice fields, a mix of water and grass and the odd punctuation mark of a floating Khmer head as fishermen dodge eels to catch tonight’s dinner. I am joined by an honour guard of mating dragonflies that flash in the stark sunlight and butterflies the size of my palm that skate along beside me. The road tails away into the bright red of Cambodia’s dirt tracks and the smooth ride of route 6 becomes a jog over stones and into furrows made by the wheels of passing motos and farm trucks. Occasionally the near-total quiet is pierced by the shriek of a pig, tethered on its back into a half-barrel and balanced on the back of a motorbike. But for the most part silence reigns. In the distance is a treeline that I’ve come to believe can never be reached and on the hottest days it’s easy to feel the danger of the place, that it may well go on and on in every parched direction waiting to lure an all to human body out of the shade to collapse under its own need for water. It’s easy to feel the weight of the locals in this place too, the weight of their poverty as they pepper the planes with tiny homes, sometimes as little as four sheets of corrugated iron propped together, sweating it out under the cruelly blazing sun.

Soon enough I turn into the school grounds. It’s made up of four main houses; the children’s living quarters and a large open-faced classroom/dining room. The walls are merrily painted with animals and Tibetan prayer flags wave their bright colours in the ever-present wind. I am more often than not met by Hing, a dapper little gentleman in an infallible brown shirt with scabies sores on his ankles and a fascination with watches. He parks my bike for me before returning for a big hug and recoiling in comically exaggerated disgust at how sweaty I am after my 6Km, 40º cycle. Then the school day takes hold. I’ll save that madness for another post.

Needless to say I’ve succumbed to the craziness of the roads here a couple of times. I’ve bumped wheels with a moto driver who was too busy staring at me to realise he was about to roll into me. I’ve been knocked off by a moto carrying three people, which attempted to cut me off when I was far too exhausted to employ evasive maneuvers. And I have, get this, been physically blown off by the wind! Let me tell you, Cambodia does not compromise on storms!

However, since I’m still alive and unharmed I am rapidly running out of excuses not to plan this weeks’ lessons. So I must be off.

I’ll be back though.

See you there.

xxx