It’s Sunday afternoon and I just got back from enjoying a great brunch with a few of my girlfriends. As I sit here full and happy after eating a big plate of pancakes, I can’t help but laugh when I think about how I spent last Sunday and how I would have given anything to see a pancake on a menu...
A week ago today:
It’s 5am and after already hitting snooze a few times, I decide it’s time to finally drag myself out of bed as I have a big day ahead. Mr. Rong Chhun has decided it’s time for the two of us to take a field trip out to a rural province, Kampong Spieu, to conduct a meeting to educate local teacher’s on the benefits of joining CITA.
I meet Mr. Rong Chhun at CITA at 6am and we hop in his car and begin our journey. After about 45 minutes of driving, listening to Khmer screeching, I mean singing, on the radio, Mr. Rong Chhun puts on his car blinker and starts to veer off the road to what looks like a gas station. I get excited at the prospect of having a few minutes of quiet from the radio, but all excitement quickly fades when we drive right past the gas station and pull up to a little shack with a few plastic tables and chairs and Mr. Rong Chhun turns to me and says “breakfast time.”
“Breakfast time”, two words that I have begun to dread hearing most here in Cambodia. To begin with, I’m not much of a breakfast fan, secondly, when I do eat breakfast, I always opt for something sweet. Unfortunately pancakes, waffles and French toast don’t often appear on the menu of local Khmer restaurants. So we get out of the car and head to an empty table and I can already feel a dozen or so sets of eyes boring into my back. Once you leave Phnom Penh, Burangs (what Cambodians call foreigners) are few and far between and still quite an unusual sight. We sit down, and someone comes over right away to take our order, without menus in hand. Another setback. No menus, means no pictures. “Omelet?” I ask, always my first go to breakfast order at a place like this. “No omelet” they reply. “Fried rice?" I ask, usually always a safe second bet. “No fried rice. You have spicy pork soup” they state. I guess this means I’m eating spicy soup for breakfast.
A few minutes later as I sit wondering how I’m going to slurp down a bowl of spicy pork soup at 6:45am, two baskets of dim sum arrive at our table. Mr. Rong Chhun explains that the dim sum is for me, and pushes both baskets in front of me. I’m thankful; I must have misunderstood about the spicy soup and a few dim sum dumplings don’t seem nearly as daunting as a big bowl of soup. Just a few minutes later though, I realize that this was not going to be my lucky day as a bowl of steaming, spicy pork soup is set before me. Then, what must have been the entire staff of this restaurant, gather around our table and watch with anticipation, wanting to make sure I thoroughly enjoy every single bite. I’ll spare you all the details but I was beyond ready to get back on the road after an exhausting display of forced smiles and nods after every bite of spicy soup and mystery meat dumplings.
After being back on the road for about another hour, we finally turn off the paved highway and onto a dirt road that leads us our meeting spot. It’s a big, empty concrete building, with a bunch of plastic chairs and not a single fan (who needs fans when it’s only 99 degrees and 90% humidity). Outside the building there are chickens running wild and several women cutting vegetables and cooking various meats in what I would best describe as a bbq pit. There are about 20 teachers from around the Kampong Spieu province that have gathered here to attend the meeting. They seem genuinely happy that we have come from “the city” to meet with them. A few even get on their knees and bow to Mr. Rong Chhun to show their appreciation. My role at this meeting was to just observe and provide feedback on how we might structure future meetings differently to encourage more active participation, or so I thought…
About an hour into the meeting, we take a break and open the floor to questions. The district leader (best equated to a chief of a local tribe), decides that he would like to hear from the Burang. He wants me to tell them what the education system is like in America, including how teachers unions work and the US government’s take on education. I can’t say that I’m extremely well versed in any of the above topics, but thanks to my consulting days, I’m quite accustomed to just winging it, so I reluctantly stood up and gave my best “Education in America” speech.
Once the meeting finally wrapped, unfortunately it was time to eat again and they served us quite a few interesting dishes, including several dishes that consisted of the chickens that had been running wild earlier. I’m pretty sure I saw a few pieces of meat on my plate still moving. Despite being sick Sunday night and all day Monday, it was definitely a trip that I’ll never forget and was quite the quintessential Cambodian experience.
Mr. Rong Chhun speaking to the teachers
The translator trying to explain to me what Mr. Rong Chhun is saying
Giving my best "Education in America" speech