Sunday, April 19, 2009

Mondulkiri - The Adventure!

The way there

So, I’ve been able to see some pretty cool things so far during my Cambodia stay. Angkor Wat was amazing, and the beach breathtaking. But this time, the Mondulkiri tops it all.

It all started at 7:00 am this past Monday, Khmer New Year’s Eve, as Amber, Sopheak and myself boarded a tuktuk with our 3 suitcases. We were meeting Eileen, Kim and Jaymie at the bus station. We had the slowest tuktuk driver in the world and thought we’d miss our bus. Even a little moto pulling a cart full of fat jiggly cut-up pig passed us. But when we finally got to the station, we found out that our bus had been delayed and would leave around 8:30 (an hour from original plans). So the three of us ordered breakfast from the little station restaurant. Mmmm noodle soup with meatballs… Not the cleanest of places, but we didn’t care. It was a fit start for our adventure.

So here are the characters : Eileen is Canadian, from Manitoba (so are Kim and Jaymie). She’s teaching grade school at an international school. Kim, her roommate, is a nurse with an NGO called Daughters of Cambodia. She works with women that are being abused. Jaymie, whom I met that morning, is a bit younger, and she works at Daughters too. She teaches the women photography. When she returns home, she’ll be doing expositions to sell the work her students have been doing. Amber, Sopheak and I are roommates. Amber is American, from Oregon, and might get married soon. She’s Pr Jesse’s admin assistant. Sopheak is dating an American, and they plan to get married when they’re done school and found an orphanage. And then there’s me.

So 8:30 ish, we get on the bus, and a provincial woman sitting next to us somehow mistakes Kim for a Chinese. Not sure how. Kim is as un-chinese as anyone can be… But for the rest of the ride, this woman and her daughter, about our age, decide to adopt Kim. They blow her kisses, touch her arm, knees, face, and spray perfume and hairspray on her. Finally we land in Snuol.

The bus was going on from there, but that was our stop. Middle of nowhere Snuol. We needed to find a taxi somehow to take us the rest of the way to Mondulkiri. We asked around, and the villagers directed us toward some fruitstands at the intersection coming into town. There we asked and were told the bus would come around soon. So we waited, went to the washroom (that was an adventure too) and were told that the bus had arrived. Only this was no regular bus. It was a pick up truck, already full and overflowing. The back of the truck was packed and bulging. We were to sit on top of all the stuff there. And it would cost us $10.

Ya. No. There’s no way. But the fruit lady there assured us that it would be the last ride into Mondulkiri for the night. We couldn’t believe it! Even the fruit lady was in cahoots!

So we decided to wait it out. We’ve all been in Cambodia long enough to know not to take those statements seriously. Eventually, a nice Cambodian man called his friend who has a taxi service to Mondulkiri. It would cost us each $6. The bus ticket to Snuol, which was more than half way, had cost us that much. But that was the best deal we could get. And we knew it. So much for there being no other way, Mrs. Fruit lady!

The taxi driver arrived. Soon, we nicknamed him Tiger. He drove us in his old standard Toyota Camry, and packed us 6 girls in there. Then we took off. Sopheak asked if there was any way for him to slow down, but he replied that he was planning on making the drive back that night, and that be wanted the way to be quick, in case it rained. We later found out why.

So we zoomed across the red dirt road through the jungle, not sure at what speed – the speedometer was broken. And so was the gas meter. And so was, we discovered later, the e-break. We drove past a large monitor lizard, and saw beautiful colorful birds, and the trees and scenery were simply breathtaking! God’s creation is incredible! But man doesn’t always do a great job…

After zooming on for a while, we came to a jungle traffic jam. Road work is going on right now, aimed to be finish in about a year or so, and a large semi carrying a huge block of cement had lost footing and drifted off a small cliff, blocking the road. An alternative road had been built in the meantime, but a truck packed with pigs had gotten stuck on that one too! A crane was trying to push the pick-up along from the back, hence was pushing against the pigs and scaring them in the process. There was a line-up of other cars, mini-vans, pick-ups and a full size bus waiting to go through. And our driver was letting several of them pass. I admit I got frustrated after a while, not knowing we had no e-breaks. The blockage was in a deep dip in the road, and Tiger wanted to go down and up that kill as fast as possible. But communication was a bit of an issue at that moment.

Eventually the way was cleared, and on we went. The road was treacherous. All dirt, with construction all along the way, constant ups and downs. At one spot there’s a guard rail – made of bamboo. I would not want to cross that jungle in the rain or dark.

We landed finally in Mondulkiri. The sun was about to set, but “Tiger” dropped us off right at the guesthouse, so we were set. We would all 6 of us share a cabin where there was a double bed and a single bed. The guesthouse guy that spoke English had dropped off an extra mattress for the other people.

There was an army of bugs waiting for us on the balcony. We learned to leave the balcony light off for the rest of the week. But the bugs had taken over our little mattress, so it was quite the ordeal to get rid of them. We had a few pet crickets and flying ants for the rest of the week because of this.

So in the end, we had 3 people sleeping sideways on the big bed, Sopheak and I shared the small bed, and a couple of girls rotated on the thin, folded over mattress on the floor. Except for the first night, where I was actually very cold for lack of a blankets (something I had yet to experience so far during my stay here) we all slept very well.

Dinner was quite the thing. We soon realized that waiters in Mondulkiri do not like to write down orders. So it took a while, and a couple of things got messed up, but in the end it was still delicious. Khmer singers came on and we had to shout to hear ourselves over it. I found out that in Cambodia, when something is called “happy”, like happy pizza, or happy soup, or happy shake, it actually contains marijuana. Jokingly Amber asked the English speaking guy what a happy shake was, and he casually, and honestly, replied “sorry, no happy shake, out of marijuana”. I don’t think it’s illegal here.

We finished the evening by deciding to go hiking to a nearby waterfall the next day. It would be Khmer New Year then, and should be a vacation day for the Cambodians, and the waterfall wasn’t supposed to be more than an hour’s walk away. So it sounded like a good idea.

Day 1

We had a slow start the next morning, which got slowed down when our breakfast order got all mixed up. But then we headed out. Everything is so beautiful and rural in Mondulkiri. The air is pure and fresh, with beautiful rolling hills, and a lovely mix of lush greenery. Most houses are built on stilts and made of wooden planks. We got some great shots during our hike. I especially love the ones of the Cambodian roadside beauty salon, the convenient store, and the gas station. The people are very sweet and helpful. We walked and walked and walked, and enjoyed all the beautiful and particular sights and sounds of the place. Then, we were in the middle of nowhere, and were still walking. No waterfalls. Still walking. Still no waterfalls. Still walking.

Finally, we arrived, exhausted and foot sore but still thrilled at the adventure. We swam and explored a bit around the waterfall. It was small, but lovely and refreshing.

But several of us didn’t want to walk back. I prayed that God would help us get home somehow. It was Sopheak who, after several failed attempts, finally got the response from a French Cambodian guy “sure, we’ll take you!” They were 9 guys who had rented a pick-up truck for the day and they let us soaking wet and non-stylish girls squish in with them! As we drove off, the asked if we wanted to join them on a tour to the top of a nearby mountain. We were a little cautious at first, but accepted. They were very friendly and so helpful, and so much fun. Finally, just before sunset, they dropped us off at our guesthouse. We offered to pay for gas, but they would have none of it. We were so blessed that none of them tried to flirt with us or show any bad intentions. I think it was a blessing straight from God.

We got cleaned up and showered, and then decided we wouldn’t have dinner again at our guesthouse. So we headed out walking in the pitch dark toward town, not sure where we would eat. We expected a motodop to stop and offer us rides, like they do in the city, but no one did! We later found out that Mondulkiri has no motodop service. But a couple men on motos did stop and accept to drive us for hire. We sat 3 girls on each (so that’s 4 adults per moto), and drove up to the small town centre.

There we settled for a nicely decorated restaurant called The Green House. But as we were getting comfortable, a hippy looking Cambodian waiter with long hair came over to us and said “I’m sorry, tonight, we have no food left”. Of course, if was Khmer New Year’s day, and what he meant was no meat left. But it sure gave us a few giggles. We finally did get dinner though. Then, we got a ride home with the same moto drivers who’d driven us earlier.

Day 2

We woke up earlier that day, as we had booked an elephant tour. Some more mix-ups relating to breakfast, time, and prices. But we eventually made it by pick-up to the small “minority” village where we were to board our elephants.

It’s quite different there. They still have some homes that look like little huts with large thatched roofs. There was a sow feeding her piglets, and small gardens all around. And children, all with short hair and clothes discolored from wear and lack of spares. The little girls all wore traditional skirts. There was one man riding an elephant, waiting for us.

Then, from behind a few huts, came two more elephants, waddling along with their big legs and bodies. Small children were riding on them in baskets. And 2 small boys were “driving” them. These 2 boys would end up being our elephants drivers, along with one of the boys’ dads and the other man. That would be the coolest summer job ever.

We boarded our elephants by walking from a little stair tower onto their heads and into a large basket that is saddled onto the elephant’s back. Eileen and I went first. Then Kim and Jaymie, and Amber and Sopheak. They’re the 2 smallest of our lot, and they got the smallest elephant. Eileen and I’s elephant, we discovered, was around 100 yrs old!

Riding an elephant is an adventure to itself. It’s quite bumpy. And then, doing it through bumpy jungle trails is even more exciting! We walked up and down the sides of jungly hills, through patches of cashew plantations, and past small solitary huts that dotted the landscape. We walked through creeks and ducked for branches. The elephants feasted along the way, taking down whole banana trees in the process. Our young elephant drivers led us along at a slow pace. Finally we arrived at the waterfall, which we nicknamed Red River Rapids. The water was muddy looking because of the red soil flowing in it. It was actually small rapids, but pleasant to swim around in, and quite refreshing. Our elephants had been let loose and were munching away somewhere in the jungle, but after a couple hours, our guides brought the back for their own swim. Our guides themselves had shampooed earlier in the same water.

The elephants were scrubbed and washed. They went completely under water and seemed to enjoy the routine. Then they were re-saddled and we got back on for the trek home. We took a short cut that went up a path climbing very steeply to the top of a hill. We realized it was actually dangerous when Sopheak and Amber, now at the front, warned us that their driver was very nervous. But we eventually made it to the top, and the main guide asked if anyone wanted to ride on the elephant’s head, like the drivers did. I jumped on the offer, and had a very interesting ride from there on. It felt like sitting on a moving, spikey leather couch. Elephants have little hairs on their thick skin, and they’re quite coarse. I wished I’d worn something other than shorts.

When we’d returned to the village, we sat and waited for our ride back. We saw a man from the village walking completely drunk. It was 3 pm. We had also smelled alcohol on one of the drivers earlier. And in retrospective, we found our two little boy guides to be very solemn. I don’t think they get treated very well. Beating and abuse is part of life in Cambodian families. But especially in this remote village, where the men have little more to do than getting drunk, it seems even worse. When the men were away or asleep, during our hang out at the waterfall spot, the two boys played and laughed like 8 year old should do. But other times, they were solemn, overly serious and had an absent look in their eyes.

When we got back to the guesthouse, we decided to try a small restaurant called Bananas. But we found the owner/cook completely drunk, rude, and offering to seat us at a table with a bunch of sketchy looking foreigners. I was late coming, so didn’t see the scene, but apparently the girls came running out of there. We settled for the greenhouse, where there actually was food that night, and enjoyed our meal there.

A few guys from the church had decided to go to Mondulkiri as well. They came a day later than us, and we ran into them that night at the greenhouse. They’d had their own adventure. They’d rented a couple motos to drive out to Bu’sra waterfall, the most popular one in the area (which we didn’t end up seeing). On the way back from the falls, one of them got a flat tire. They had to walk the moto back to a nearby village to get it fixed. And it was no short walk.

Day 3

This day we decided to rent a pick-up truck and drive around to a few plantations. But first we wanted to get breakfast at “Nature Lodge”, and get our bus tickets back settled. We were all tired that day, so had a bit of a lazy late start. By the time we had breakfast it was lunch-time, and we wound up combining both. Nature Lodge is a lovely place, and it’s earned its name. It’s an eco-tourism spot where you have to bring your tent. The bathroom has no roof and both stalls are surrounded with pretty flowers (one of the guys commented this was not such a good idea – snake bites on the bum would not be pleasant). The restaurant is beautiful, all built around a tree, a bit like a tree house, with hammocks hanging around and tables made from tree chunks. They have a couple horses that walk around, sometimes into the restaurant (which has no walls), and the most beautiful German Shepherd in all Cambodia (most dogs here are quite ugly). The place is owned by a tree-hugger looking couple who were very helpful and nice. They seem to communicate a lot with NGO’s and people coming in to help Cambodians. One girl that was staying there teaches women with AIDS how to sow to make a living, and recycle old shirts and materials to make fashionable unique clothes.

We eventually got our bus tickets booked, after being told there would be no buses running on Friday, and any taxis or anything going back would cost $130, and so on. But in the end it cost us each $12 to book room in a 14 seater mini-van.

We visited a coffee and pepper plantation, and saw how pineapple is grown. We drove around and got some nice views and pictures. Then we ate in a little Khmer restaurant, and went home for our last night there. We got to bed really early, as we were all quite tired and had an early day coming up.

The ride home on Friday was pretty eventless. In the end, our trip cost no more than $120, including food, stay bus and all our crazy activities, and was worth every penny and every minute of it.

Amber, Sopheak and myself came home by tuktuk at around 4ish. We arrived to find out the electricity had been out again, for 2 days. Apparently, a drug dealer in the slum nearby got in a fight with his parents, and set the place on fire. The fire spread through the majority of the slum. A 3 yr old girl was caught in a room and burned alive. Innocent people often pay for the folly of others. In the end, the fire was stopped and the rest of the neighbourhood was saved. The slum is in ashes though.

The house was really hot that night, especially after returning from Mondulkiri, which has weathee similar to Canadian summer. Normally we have fans to cool us down, but not this night. So we came up with another plan.

Amber has a small balcony where she keeps beautiful potted plants. We placed her mattress there, and her mosquito net. But the net was making it warmer, so we opted for spraying ourselves head to two with Off, and going without mosquito net at all. I think it did the trick. Amber, Sopheak and myself laid sideways on the mattress so we wouldn’t be close together and therefore warmer, but that also meant our feet were sticking out from the mattress. Mine, being the tallest, were about half on half off. But I slept great. The cool breeze was nice and refreshing.

Saturday - Thunderstorm

It seems it’s the beginning of the rainy season already. This afternoon, Sopheak and I went for some last minute Russian market shopping. We got caught by some serious rain though, and couldn’t leave. It had been heavy and humid until then, but now it’s nice and cool. It poured and winded for over an hour.

Amber wanted to go to the night market, so I tagged along for the ride. Sopheak drove the moto with Amber and I behind her. As we got to the road close to the market, we found it flooded. We tried to pass through, but the water kept getting deeper and deeper, so we decided to turn around. But other cars were causing waves, and turning a 3-seater moto around just ain’t that easy, not in a couple feet of water anyway. The moto tipped over and we stalled the engine.
We called around for help, and eventually Hak came over. He’s amazing. He was at a restaurant about to have dinner, but he left to come help us out. He walked Amber’s moto to a roadside mechanic shop (literally a truck with the bed open and tools to do the work) and then left us once all had been explained and settled. It took about 15 minutes to do the work, and around $10, and then us three girls walked over to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant for noodle soup. After all that, we found out that the night market wasn’t even on tonight! But we had a good time and got to escape the warm electricity-less house. Still no power now. Hopefully tomorrow it’ll be fixed. Apparently it was supposed to be back on today, but because of the rain it got postponed till tomorrow. We’ll find out soon!


BTW, it's now Monday and our power still hasn't come back on... The church has been raising funds and goods to help those affected by the fire. Vimean, the kids ministry leader, runs a children's joy club as outreach in that slum, so he knows the children and knew the one that died.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Night out at the market

Tonight was quite eventful. After a swim workout with Amber, we met Kim and Eileen, two Canadian girls (from Saskatchewan I think), for dinner. Kim is a nurse working at a clinic called Daughters. It’s a ministry that reaches out to women and girls that are being abused, either in their marriage or in the sex trade. Eileen teaches 6-8 year olds at an international school. They’re both great fun and I’ve really been enjoying getting to know them. They’re coming with us to Mondulkiri.

We had a great time at the Mexican restaurant where we met. The food was good, and the humor was awesome. Then, we headed over to the night market.

I needed to take out some money first. Amber drove us to an outdoor ATM. The concept itself is fine. But there’s a light right above the machine, and it very much attracts bugs. I walked up to the ATM, and within seconds I ran away squealing. They swarmed me! They were in my shirt, in my hair, all over my hands and mouth and eyes! I went back for a second try, and managed to slip my card in, but I just couldn’t stay! I tried another time, and another, and another, but the swarming was terrible! It felt way worse than it looked (or sounds)!

Finally, we gave up and Amber took me to an indoor ATM down the street. We shopped around for a while, and I got a couple cute things. I ended up spending $5.50 (which was so not worth braving that bug army!). As we were getting ready to leave, a young Cambodian girl walked up to Eileen to ask her a question. Eileen had bought some earrings from her booth earlier, and seeing her again, she came to ask “excuse me, do you have time to teach English?” Eileen said she didn’t have time, so we piped in about New Life’s Office Skills Training School (where I’ve been teaching, at the church). We told her it’s a free school, and we do have foreign teachers. Her friend walked up to us and heard the conversation, and both of them stepped back in amazement. They couldn’t believe there was an English school with foreign teachers, for free! Someone mentioned it was held at the church, and the girls looked a little uncertain, which shows me they are most likely not Christians. But they were so excited at the idea of coming. I invited them to join my classes for my last week, and gave them details about times and such. I included the times of Moo’s class and Jason’s class (Jason is from Hamilton – he’s Angie’s husband and basically oversees the foreign staff, but also teaches in the afternoon). They were so happy and excited that they gave us each a fancy little hair-tie from the shop.

We were so excited and amazed at this encounter. God’s hand was so over it! We walked away thinking “wow, that means a couple families that will be reached for Christ!”

By the time we left the night market, it was much later than we meant it to be. It’s not safe to be out alone at night, especially girls on a moto. I was leaning over and talking to Amber, and was not paying attention to my purse. I should’ve had it on my lap, between Amber and I, but I was carelessly holding it on my shoulder. However, my arm was bent, and I had both hands holding onto the bags containing our purchases. As I leaned forward, in the middle of conversation, I felt a violent thug on my arm. When I looked up I realized what had just happened.

In Cambodia, often at night, a couple guys on a moto may try to steal another moto driver or passenger’s purse or belongings. They’ll drive up really quickly and come close beside their victim, and then grab at whatever they want. It can be very dangerous, especially if the owner doesn’t let go. They can get thrown off of their moto and hit by oncoming vehicles, or simply get seriously hurt in the fall. It actually happens quite a bit.

But tonight, maybe because of the way my purse is made, or maybe because of how my arm was bent, they didn’t get anything from us. They just gave us a little scare. All I have now from the experience is a small bruise on the inside of my arm.

God’s protection is with us all the time. I can see His hand over all that happens. Not that it always makes things easy, but in the end it all works out somehow. A couple days ago, in my English class, I asked them what they thought the difference between “difficult” and “impossible” was. That was the same day I had the really cool lesson. I’d gotten my students to act out the story of Jesus walking on water. My little script ended with the disciples crying out “You really are the Son of God!” One of my students asked what that meant. So I explained the trinity, as simply as possible. That led to a question about us having a body, soul and spirit. Then another student asked where demons come from. Then “so, when a person does something bad, it’s because a demon made him to it?” After which I explained all about lucifer’s fall, and mankind’s fall, and Jesus coming on earth to identify with our sin, and then dying on the cross to pay for the penalty of our sin. All this in an ESL class… not bad. I think God just knew how tough of a month it’s been for me, and wanted to give me an extra boost and show me some of the early fruit of our work here. He really is such a wonderful, loving Father.

Well, anyway, the difference between impossible and difficult. Well, it’s simple. But in life, we confuse the two. The Bible says that with God, nothing is impossible. But when we face difficulties, we (or at least I) tend to get angry at God and say “why are you putting me through this??” So often I’ve thought “God, I really can’t make the next step this time!” But then, I look back, and I realize I really have done it, with God. Nothing is impossible with God.

And tonight, it was totally Him watching over us. I’m surprised the thieving attempt wasn’t more serious (silly me, I wasn’t wearing my helmet). And I’m surprised that the girl approached us about the English class. I really hope they come. If you guys can pray for them, that would be awesome! And also pray that I can remember their faces. It’s actually hard here. People do look the same! Their eyes, hair, height and skin is usually about the same… But I think it would be extra special for them if I do remember when they come. Hopefully this week! I’ll keep you posted!