Saturday, August 30, 2008

End of Training

All my training is now over!

Teaching was a lot of fun, and I'm really glad I had the opportunity to learn how to do it in this environment. Unfortunately, it's time to play with the big boys, and I'm moving out tomorrow and into my own house in the city, the place I talked about in another post. It has a maid to cook and clean, which is nice, it's got three bedrooms but so far I'm the only one living there, tv, internet, AC, so I think it'll be a good deal.

This morning all four of us interviewed at a school called Elite. First they gave us a little pep talk about how they teach their lessons, then we were individually interviewed, they asked us a little about our teaching style, and asked us if we had questions, etc. They'll let us know Monday if we get picked. It seems like it's pretty safe to say we'll all get chosen, since English teachers are in demand, and we made good impressions. I like the school, because one of the locations is close to where I'm gonna be living. Also, the schedule is kind of flexible, like you'll be teaching different classes at different times each week, probably 20 hours a week, and you can ask for vacation time when you want. Starting pay is usually 15-16 dollars an hour but every few months you get evaluated and may get a pay raise. The lessons follow a set order but you can make each lesson your own, and add your own creative activities to it. Mostly they need us to help students with speaking and listening, and they have local teachers for reading and writing. So, if I get hired, it sounds like a great place to work.

We've been going out to dinner at all sorts of interesting places lately. Tonight we got Lebanese food, which I loved because it reminded me of Greek food. Friday night we went to a place that served a gigantic burger where the meat itself was 1.1 pounds, and it was topped with cheese and bacon and lettuce and onion and tomato. Gen and I could only eat half, but Greta and Graham the champion eaters were able to down it all after about 35, 40 minutes. Afterwards, we all felt kinda logey and sick. But I'm proud of their great accomplishment. I guess my stomach has just gotten too small to tackle such a feat.

Not much else to really say. I've loved the training here, and the girls that work here are so amazingly nice and helpful. Like when Hien comes in and just offers me some grapefruit and keeps slicing pieces until I feel that I will have vitamin C coming out of my eyes. I'll definitely have to come back and visit from time to time.

Taking some time off before I'd like to start teaching. So Graham and I are going to beach on Monday I think, a place called Vang Tau or something. We're staying for a few days or a week or until we get bored. I don't know, I obviously don't know the details. He wants to learn to surf. I want to sit on the beach and read and contemplate. And become the center of attention for all the locals. We'll see what happens. If you don't hear anything, just assume I am alive. No news is good news!

adios for now

Monday, August 25, 2008

Time Marches on

When I first got here, I was eating 4 meals a day. Now my stomach has shrunk, probably from those days when I was sick, and I'm content off just two meals. And for some reason, they can be spaced very far apart. For example, today I ate at 9am and 9:30pm. I wasn't even hungry for lunch. I don't know if this will be a continuing trend or a passing thing, but it's nice to not spend as much money.

I checked out the place I'm thinking of renting today, and everything about it seems great. It's off a main road, but down a couple small side streets so that the location itself is very quiet. It's very peaceful, and I'd have my own big balcony, although it's only a couple stories up and doesn't look out on much, but that's okay. There's two bedrooms, and no one else living there at the moment. Somehow it is only $350 a month. If i find someone else to live there, though, I can cut that in half. I do have to pay extra for my utilities and tv and internet and such, but all the monthly bills are laughably small. I met the maid, who's a very nice lady who doesn't speak English well, but I hear she's an amazing cook. I met Hien's brother-in-law, a young American guy who lived there for some years and is now moving back to America with his wife, and he gave me some good advice and gave the place an excellent recommendation. The only gripe I have is that on the main road, it's not the kind of environment that I find ideal. I like having a smattering of cafes and restaurants and such where I can go and get a coffee and a snack or whatever, but the street instead is lined with tons of tiny stores selling things I'm not even interested in, like shirts and antiques and car parts. Oh well. Beggars really can't be choosers. I think enough about the place is positive to outweigh that negative. Hien said there is one cafe right by the street, and I saw the sign but didn't peak inside, but that could become my regular hang-out place.

Anyway, teaching is going great, the city is beautiful, and there's nothing else to really say at this point.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Great Awakening

I haven't posted in a few days, but life's been busy, and I was actually sick for two days out of the week. Stomach pains, and indigestion, and actually a really bad fever worse than I've felt in years. Luckily, since our schedule is pretty flexible with class in the morning and teaching at night, I was able to lie down for a few hours and that made me feel a lot better. I took immodium and ate pretty much just bread for two days, and by Friday night I was feeling much better, and starving, so we went out to dinner at a nice tapas place. There was a guy playing lots of American songs on guitar, everything from Billy Joel to Pearl Jam to Men at Work... so it was interesting, and we had good opportunity to sing along. Exploring more of the city, taking in more of the scenery, and starting to fall in love with Saigon and its people. We walked past the Hotel Continental last night, where the "Quiet American" was written. It's very old, left over from the French colonial period, but looks to be recently renovated. I read a travel article before I left about a guy who lived there for a few months trying to write a novel, following in the tradition of the quiet american, and it was a lot more run down then, and he never ended up writing his novel... but anyway, it looks to be in better shape now.

First week of teaching is done, and it has gone overall pretty smoothly. Even the day that I was sick, I was feeling well enough during the class time to get up and help Graham teach, but by the end of class I was zonked. Yesterday, Friday, I taught a class by myself at 3pm, so I had less time to prepare, and I wasn't familiar with the class, so I had to guess what they knew. Some were really sharp, some were struggling, but I think I got the content of the lesson across. I taught them a lot of new vocab about clothes, in the context of shopping at the market. Then I decided to try some drama, and I wrote a short play and acted it out as a one-man-show for them. It was kind of a funny play where a girl wants to buy blouses, and after she haggles and agrees to buy two, she discovers they are full of holes and decides not to buy them, but the shopkeeper demands payment. So, the girl tries to run away but trips over a candle and lights her pants on fire, taking off her sandal to put out the flames. The shopkeeper cackles and says "that will teach you to mess with me!" and the girl runs away to shop elsewhere. A simple thing, but the students absolutely loved it, and they could not wait to act out their own renditions of it. I also had a game at the end of class where pictures of the vocab words for the day were on the floor, and one representative from each team was up and when I called out a word they had to be the first to stomp on the picture with their foot. They loved that one too! We have also played a game where you smack the word on the board, but it's good to change it up sometimes. I'd like to plan Monday's lesson this weekend to get it out of the way. Perhaps we will talk about accessories.

Another interesting teaching experience came when I had to talk to a student one-on-one, as part of the training program here. We talk to them for an hour, find out what they know and what they need help with, then write a lesson plan, and then for another hour we tutor them using the plan. So, last week I met with a girl, and I found that it's much easier to discover what gives people trouble in language when you can talk and listen to them directly, rather than a classroom setting. For example, mixing up the sounds "p" and "b", which I think is very common among Asian students learning English. Also, consonants at the end of words are hard for them to pronounce, especially more than one, like "porch". A lot of their words end in vowels, or single consonants which are softer and not stressed. Anyway, I think tutoring can be a rewarding activity, and it helps one to think about language and learning on a more personal level.

This weekend we were supposed to be going to the Mekong Delta, but we figured that since we just got to Saigon and have barely seen it, it would be better to postpone that and instead see the city, so that's what we've been doing. Earlier today, we were driving around and looking at apartments for rent for people. I think on Monday Hien will show me a house that has an open room where I can live, where apparently her brother and sister used to live, and her friend still lives sometimes. It would be something like $400 a month, I think. A maid kind of comes with the house. I feel kind of awkward having someone clean for me, but Hien says that the maid is happy to do it and needs the job. Also, apparently she cooks. So, it's beginning to sound like a better and better deal. I just don't like coming across as the cocky American who comes over to another country where his dollar goes further and expects to be treated like a king. But, not having to cook or go out to eat is also nice.... I suppose I will see what the place looks like, but so far it sounds promising to me.

Until next time,

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Call me Teacher

Because that's what my students call me! I'm trying to get them to learn my name is Peter...

Ok! So the past couple days a lot as happened and I've been absolutely exhausted. But, as I frequently find, exhausted is one of the best states of being. When one has very little to do, and can sleep as late as they want and work as little as they want, it is easy to start feeling bored, restless, lethargic... At least for me, this leads to something like existential dread, and wondering what on earth the meaning is in all of this. Without something to ground you, you're floating off in space, and there's nothing there to sustain you. I've found that, as ironic as it sounds, the busier I am, the happier I am, and the more energized mentally I become.

Anyway! Enough rambling, because I am tired and don't want to be typing forever.
We've had very long days because at 9am we have Vietnamese language class, until 11am or so. It may be a futile exercise... we've so far learned how to pronounce the letters, and what the six tones of the language are, so we can sort of stumble our way through sentences, but will we really learn to say anything and remember it after two weeks? Perhaps the important things will stick with us. I know how to order an ice coffee with milk. Cafe sua da. Except there are many more symbols and accent marks. Anyway, after the class our time is kind of fluid, and we just have to write a lesson plan for the class we teach later that day. Somewhere in there we go to lunch. The first day (Monday, ie yesterday), we viewed a demo class in the afternoon. We watched Linh, the languagecorps teacher, teach a class using the same structure we learned, and we were able to see what she did well and how she organized her lesson. After this, the girls teach a class together around 5, and Graham and I teach a class together around 7. At some point we'll have to split up and teach the class solo and observe each other.

Going into my first class, I was extremely nervous. I kept wanting to just run away and retreat to my comfort zone. Why couldn't I just have stayed at home, playing computer games and drinking hot tea that my mom served me?
But no, here I was, and I was going to go through with it. My brain told me that tons of people did this kind of thing and it wasn't that hard. I KNOW English, I speak it every day. I KNOW the way to teach, I've been learning it for two weeks. And, I think I can be pretty good with people, when I'm not being awkward. And even that awkwardness endears me to people sometimes.
During my class, the nervousness kinda melted away, and I learned that it was not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. We had our lesson plan, we just had to follow it. We had to be patient when the students had trouble with things. We had to be careful to pronounce things correctly, and speak slowly so they got the words. We had to keep energized about what we were doing, even if it was boring to us, it was completely new for them, and they WANT to learn. Our class has 12 people, age 18 to 25, mixed gender but mostly female, at the beginning level. They know some stuff, but not a lot. Frequently they hit a block and don't know the word for something. But they learn quick and are eager to know more. They're all there on their own time, it's not like it's a public school and they're forced to be there.
Anyway, the first day went great. Graham and I kinda switched off with leading things, we were both confident and energized, kept the pace moving. The class was an hour and a half long. Feels like a long time, especially when you're on your feet, but it does go by quick. Our students are awesome... some of them are shy, which is what I expected. But some are talkative and always asking questions. In fact, it's kind of hard to get them to stop talking to each other sometimes. I don't want to treat them like little kids, ya know. It's kinda weird, cuz during training we were told that teachers were very well respected in asia, and all we had to do was walk into a room looking and acting like a teacher, and we immediately had their respect until we lost it by doing something stupid. It's not like American schools where you need to earn respect first. So, I was expecting all of their eyes to be transfixed on us the whole time, but it didn't happen like that. Could be worse, though, for sure. Our first lesson we did introductions and then a lesson about professions and locations where they work. Like, doctor and hospital, banker and bank. It went well and they got the words quickly, so the second day (today) we stepped it up a notch...

Today did not go as well. I wouldn't say it was a bad day. In fact, I'm glad how it turned out because we know so much more now, and we were able to change and adapt our plan in the middle of the lesson to meet their needs.
Our new topic was traveling. We made our dialogue longer and used many more new vocabulary words, in longer sentences. We introduced a ton of names of places around the world, like Eiffel Tower, Pyramids of Egypt, Great Wall of China. I underestimated how hard some of those words are to say for nonnative speakers. So, they were really struggling, and we pared down our dialogue and the number of new words we introduced, so we made it a little better, but it was still not ideal. You could tell they were having trouble with many of the words, and it was just too much to keep track of.
The worst part was that our class was being observed today by Linh, so that made us nervous. At the end, she told us what she thought, and how we could do better. Ultimately, it helped a lot, and we got some good advice from her. We went from too easy the first day, to too hard the second day, so we need to make it simpler and have less new words, but have them learn words they don't know, so it's something new. Our plan is to continue the theme of traveling tomorrow. It's quite alright to have a 2-day lesson. We'll still talk about traveling, but slow down a little and introduce less new words so they can handle it. Luckily we still have about a third of our lesson plan from today that we can carry over and use tomorrow. So, that means less planning tomorrow!
The smiling faces, waves, and sayings of "goodbye, teacher!" as they left the class told me that even though it was a tough lesson, they would be back to learn the next day, and I would be back to better attune the material to their needs.

Without meaning to, I've typed way too much again. Body exhausted, mind is still going a mile a minute.

One more thing to add, though: the two girls who work here, Linh and the administrative assistant Hien, are some of the nicest girls ever, and they've been showing us places to eat breakfast and lunch during the day and cook us dinner after our class every night. Well, two nights in a row at least. I won't expect them to feed us constantly. But it's great to be mothered a little. The homecooked dinners are just amazing and I get completely stuffed. Rice, and spinach things, and chicken that's all garic-y, and fish, and you put it all together in your bowl and shovel it in with chopsticks. Yesterday they made us this wonderful dessert called "buh" (I don't remember what the tone is or how it's spelled), and it's made of avocado, milk, sugar, and ice. It doesn't sound like a dessert... but it's sooo good! It's like a pudding almost. They also serve us cut-up grapefruit which is 10000 times better than grapefruit in the states. It's sweet, not bitter, and comes off in slices, not little pieces that fall apart. Also, you can dip it in this chili-like substance, and somehow it works.
Ah! I could talk all day about food. I've been eating four meals a day... 9am breakfast, 12:30pm lunch, 5:30pm dinner, 10pm late dinner...
You'd think I'd be losing weight with this healthier food, but sadly no. especially not when everything is dirt cheap, even cheaper than Cambodia. I've got over 1,000,000 Dong in my pocket, and I'm living large! Things will probably (hopefully) settle down at some point, though.

Ok, time for bed soon.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Back in Saigon

We made it back to Ho Chi Minh City without any problems. It was just another long bus ride. It was drizzling lightly when we got here but it started raining harder and harder until it was a downpour. So, while we were hoping to explore the city a little more, we only really checked out a few blocks around our place. Graham and I are staying at the languagecorps school where we're taking classes, so that's really convenient. Greta and Genessa are in another hotel, and it's kinda weird to be split up after two weeks of us all living in the same house. It should be easier to communicate here, though, since I got a phone that works in Vietnam and I think they're getting phones, too.
Anyway, I'll still need a little time to warm up to the city, and maybe it will look more inviting when/if the rain stops. It already seems much friendlier and less chaotic than that first ride from the airport. Once I get a little better with the language, I think it will go more smoothly. We had kind of a tough time ordering coffee today in a place that wasn't really used to English speakers. Better to stick to more tourist-friendly places at least in the beginning. The people I see seem to be nice, and since I'll be living in this city for a year, I long to fit in with them and adapt to the culture. Of course, since I look different from them, in many ways I will always appear to be a foreigner to some of them, but just as my goal in Greece was to become an Athenian, my goal here is to become as much of a Saigonite as possible.

I finally got a chance to upload my pictures from Cambodia, and there are about 220 in total. I've got descriptions written for about half of them, and I hope to finish that another time. Check them out here:

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Last Day in Phnom Penh

I've been in Cambodia for two whole weeks, but it feels more and more like my home. It is a strange feeling to know that tomorrow morning I will be leaving it, to take a 6 hour bus ride back to HCMC, my home for the next 11 months. The housing situation is very odd there... apparently there are cheap, run-down 1-bedroom apartments, and then 8-bedroom spacious villas, with very little in between. It is very possible that with our group of 4 in Vietnam we will save money by living together in a big house rather than by renting individual apartments. We met a girl who had just been teaching there, and she said that each person only pays about $150 a month by sharing a house. It almost sounds too good to be true, but I'm definitely down for something like that. Our group has also been talking about working together to produce business english teaching plans for companies who want to improve their english. For example, a restaurant has a problem with its waiters getting orders wrong and misunderstanding customers, so they hire teachers to teach them english specifically tailored to their needs. You get paid to come up with a plan, and then to teach it, and the rates are very good. It could be time-consuming, but it would be good to make some extra money. Especially after I've spent a ton just trying to live these past couple weeks. For someone who has to eat out for every meal, it's not bad, especially when dinner usually costs no more than 5 dollars. But it still adds up.

Today has been a nice, lazy day. Woke up late. Lounged around and watched TV. Half of the stations are Asian and I can't understand them, but they're entertaining nonetheless. The other half show American movies and TV shows at all odd hours of the day. Then we sauntered down to the market and had brunch at this nice little French place which we have dubbed "the french place" since we cant pronounce the name. It's certainly interesting, because they have some random weird dishes. Today I tried the chicken and taragon muffins. I guess the chicken is baked into the muffins. At any rate, they were delish. Yesterday I had a breakfast and a lunch... chocolate and banana crepes followed by croque monsiour with the most delectable cheese and sauce. I don't care if they are snooty, the French know how to please.

We've been having such horrendous weather here. It's been raining every day, mostly in the afternoon, becoming a torrential downpour and flooding the streets. I definitely need to invest in a lightweight poncho. I have no extra layers here. When it rains, I put on my hat. That's my only protection. In Vietnam I have a jacket, but it's too heavyweight. I mean, it is nice when it rains if I'm inside and don't have to go anywhere. It fills me with a very peaceful feeling to see the rain steadily pouring down, and it definitely cools things off a little. When the sun is out, it can be dreadfully hot. It might also feel worse because the humidity is 94%. When I check, it says that the high is only 82 degrees, which is no hotter than a hot day in Connecticut, so it must be the humidity which makes it so uncomfortable. Yesterday we went to a water park, which really helped to cool us off. It was filled mostly with kids, who all stared at us, probably thinking 'look at those silly white people'. One of the boys just said to me: you're so pale! What do you say to that? I guess in their culture, it is not considered rude to come right out and say something like that.
Last night we ate Mexican food at a place called Cantina. The walls were lined with photographs of people with guns, and old movie posters. It felt like they got their impression of Mexico from 50 years in the past. My tacos were absolutely amazing, though. Where shall we eat tonight? If I have my way, I'd like to sway the crew toward a Greek place. It's called Steve's Steakhouse and Greek Restaurant. Usually I don't associate steak with Greek food, but we'll see. If their pasticio is up to par, it will get my seal of approval.
Yesterday afternoon, during the daily monsoon, I watched In Bruges on my laptop. One of the most hilarious films I've seen, and yet also deeply profound. Definitely on my list of favorites at the moment.

What will I miss about Phnom Penh? Tuk-tuk rides anywhere in the city for a dollar per person, coffee in a bag, amazing food, marvelous temples, monks walking around the streets with their yellow umbrellas, bargains at the market, and the friendly optimism of the Khmer people. A disproportionate percentage of the population is under 30, due to the genocide of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's. Because of this, most of them don't remember the hardships from those times, and there is a general feeling of optimism among the youth. I'm not sure if it's the same in Vietnam, but it has definitely drawn me to the Khmer people.
What won't I miss? Getting woken up in the middle of the night by barking dogs. Trash in the street. Getting hassled by beggars. Sharing a computer with 6 other people.

Mostly, the good outweighed the bad. I am headed to a city which is ten times bigger than this one. In a word, it should be... interesting. Luckily, I should have access to wireless internet, and my first priority is getting my pictures uploaded! I'll get them all on photobucket and post some highlights on here.

Chum reap sua!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Halfway Done with Training

Today was our last day of training in Cambodia. So I've had roughly 70 hours of teaching instruction and practice by now. It sounds like a lot, but I still don't feel like a "teacher". I suppose I never really will until I actually do it in front of a real class.
We have gone over a lot in two weeks, though. We learned how to make a lesson plan and budget your time, how to introduce new vocabulary, how to put together fun activities, how to use reading and writing exercises to complement the speaking lessons. Every day we have practiced a part of a lesson in front of our fellow teachers-to-be, and while it could be awkward and repetitive, I really felt more and more confident with every lesson I did. When you plan lessons, you have to follow a usual structure but you're allowed to be creative, which I like. Some schools that hire teachers expect them to strictly follow a book, while others are more relaxed. To start off, I would like a little hand-holding, but I also don't want to feel trapped. After all, if I'm going to be the one spending time with the students every day, I think I will figure out the best way to get them to learn and the material they need to focus on, rather than the administration. We shall see, I guess.
It was kind of a sad day today because two of our eleven teachers-in-training had to leave in the middle of class to catch a flight back to Thailand so they can start the next leg of their training. It's tough when you spend a couple weeks getting to know someone, and then suddenly you're cut off and you may never see them again. I really want to try to keep up contacts with the non-Vietnam folk, though. I feel interested in traveling to Thailand now that I've heard more about it, and flights between the countries here are dirt cheap. Plus, if I know someone who's already there I won't feel too lost. Soon I'll be able to show people around Ho Chi Minh City like I'm a native. Maybe.
But anyway, we've definitely had some fun times in Phnom Penh while we've been here. We found a bowling alley close to our villa which was pretty cool. It seems that bowling is universal. We went to an Indian restaurant one night, too, and I tried Indian food for the first time possibly in my life. It is now probably my second favorite food, after Greek. It's really that good. I'm astounded that I never had it before. I got this thing called Chicken Jinjaaro, which was chicken and potato and something else all in this really thick sauce and I just immediately fell in love with it and couldn't stop scarfing it down. I also got some garlic nan, which is like crispy fried bread, and that was incredible as well. Definitely gotta eat Indian more often.

Last night we actually went on a little boat cruise up and down the Mekong River, which was really fun and we had some great views of the city. It was kind of a last hurrah for my traveling companions and I, at least for the ones who couldn't stay this weekend.

As for the Vietnam folk, we've extended our stay until Sunday so we can hang out, rest up a little, and explore some more of the city while we're here. I'd love to see some museums and stuff and try out some more restaurants. What other ethnic foods haven't I eaten? I think I should just go down the list, country by country.

Anyway, here's to the weekend! Cheers yáll!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

After Angkor

We spent the weekend up in Siem Reap, which is the city outside Angkor Wat, checking out the temples around the place. Our hotel itself was pretty nice, with a little pool and very friendly staff who were always offering us things. It felt like a vacation from a vacation. The town itself was riddled with touristy restaurants and bars with clever names like "Angkor What?". We spent all day Saturday checking out temples, crawling around the ruins, taking loads of pictures, and listening to a goofy, awkward tour guide who barely spoke English. I would have enjoyed the experience better if it wasn't brutally hot and humid the entire time, as we had to keep huffing and puffing and climbing up and down steps and such. At every turn we were also assaulted by little kids trying to sell us bracelets and fans and silk scarves. I somehow ended up with a free fan which I kept using to fan myself down. Don't get me wrong, it's not like I had a bad time. The temples were truly breathtaking, and I was just in awe of how they could have constructed such massive architectural wonders. You're not going to see anything amazing if you stay in your airconditioned room all day, so I guess it was worth it trudging through the heat to get such amazing views.

Really, the pictures speak for themselves, and I will try to get all of them up soon, but as I said it is difficult to get the time to do it. Here is one, though, to whet your appetites, and please be patient for the rest to come!

Tomorrow begins our second week of training, beginning with a grammar test that I will hopefully not fail.

Until next time, as usual.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

After Second Day of Training

We've had our first couple days of training, which I was at first a little apprehensive about, but now I'm feeling more confident about it. Our job as teachers is to teach them conversational English so they can communicate, more than rules of grammar or drilling words into their heads. So, I feel like it's not a big deal if I'm not perfect at grammar and spelling. The important pieces of grammar the students will pick up just by hearing me talk. We have a couple teachers here who are training us in teaching and the finer points of language in general. For example, today we were talking about phonetics, and how to write words in other languages by their phonemes. I find it all very fascinating, after taking a few languages myself over the years.
Today we each had to practice teaching a little lesson called a "warmer", which usually starts the day's lesson. It involved a short dialogue on a certain topic to review vocab, and then getting the students to repeat the dialogue back to the teacher and then with each other. It seemed really repetitive as we did it in English, but for nonnative speakers it must be difficult to pick up. I look forward to learning more about teaching methods and such. I mean, my temperament is such that I could sit in classes all day and learn things. In the near future, though, I will have to step over to the other side of the classroom and finally be the teacher.
I find Phnom Penh more and more familiar, as I get in the rhythm of how things are done here. It's not as unbearably hot as I thought at first, and not as insanely chaotic either. Anything is manageable when it becomes more familiar. I've been trying a lot of different food at the restaurants here, many of which serve American and French food too, and I'm interested to see how they do these dishes. I'm also interested of course in trying new Asian food. Every place here seems to serve Vietnamese and Thai and Chinese dishes along with Cambodian, so it doesn't seem like I'm eating in a specifically Cambodian place. Tonight I got a soup, though, that was Cambodian which was pretty good, with fish, egg, pineapple, and tamarind sauce. For a starter, I had feta and spinach spring rolls. It was definitely nice to satisfy my feta craving.
The other LC teachers in training are all very sweet people and I'm glad to be working with them. Someone tonight observed how the whole thing is not competitive at all. I think it's because we're all pretty much starting at the same level and going through the trials of learning to be an English teacher in a foreign place.
The highlight of my day, though, was definitely the massage that I splurged on this afternoon. $4 for a one hour massage... good deal, like everything here. I had never had a massage before so I was in for a surprise. I knew they could be kind of rough, and I definitely saw that. You never could have guessed they could be rough when your masseuse is like a 90-pound girl. They use their elbows and feet and work nearly every part of your body. Sometimes it kinda hurts when they hit certain pressure points. But at the end of it, as I'm walking away, I feel like I'm years younger. Like my bones and muscles are reborn. Everything is just more relaxed and renewed. Definitely worth it.

This weekend we're going to Angkor Wat, and I'm really looking forward to checking it out.

I set up a photobucket account, but it was taking too long to upload pictures yesterday so I haven't got most of them up. A few got uploaded already, though, so I'll post the link and you can get checking for updates:

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Series of Unfortunate Events

A short reflection after a couple days in Phnom Penh...

It's a much much smaller city than Ho Chi Minh City. One can traverse it with motorbike/rikshaw taxis that are all over the city. The traffic is ridiculous and seems to have no rules. There are tons of bikes everywhere honking and dashing in front of each other. On the streets, there are numerous little shops all over. At least in our part of the city, away from the center, all the main streets are lined with tiny shops and places which sort of pass for restaurants but I'm not quite sure. I remember in Greece we would complain about the uneven sidewalks. What we have here do not really even count as sidewalks. We found a couple nice cafes today to sit and chill and have a beer at. I had noodle soup for dinner last night and breakfast this morning. I think it's basically the same as pho, but they don't call it pho. It's very filling and I wouldn't mind having it all the time.

I don't really have time for a full run-down of everything I did today, but here are three unfortunate yet interesting items:

1. We were exploring the royal palace, which is full of beautiful architecture and Buddhist shrines and stuff. I got a lot of really cool pictures that I want to upload when I get a chance. I sat down on a bench in the shade and two monks sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. We chatted about what I was doing and they kept asking questions about English. They kept telling me to talk slower, and I did, but I also told them that for someone from the northeastern US, I talk very slowly. Anyway, my group had moved on, and when I finally bid goodbye to the monks I had to scramble to find them. They had just left the place and were about to leave before I ran up, but everyone was interested in the fact that I met two monks.

2. We were taking two rikshaw taxis to a welcome dinner at a nice restaurant, and one group went on ahead, so the two girls left behind and I got in the next one we saw, assuming it knew where it was going. The driver went on for about 20 minutes, all around the city, before stopping and asking where we were going, and we had no idea, nor the phone number of anyone there. We ended up going back to the languagecorps place, and someone there had the number of one of the people at the restaurant so we could get directions. We finally got there an hour late after everyone had eaten. I hastily ordered the first thing the waiter recommended, leading me to the third thing...

3. I was served a sizzling hot plate of duck and vegetables, which the waiter promptly lit on fire. The flame was enormous and continued to grow until I thought I would be engulfed, but I fearlessly gazed on stoically until it subsided. Peter: 1, Flame: 0.

All of these events I take in stride, though, and they make great stories. All in all a great couple of days. The area around where we're staying has already become really familiar to me, and I've walked up and down the main street to the market several times, coming to recognize the familiar faces and shops. This city intrigues me, and the people appear happy and eager. I can't believe how hard they work in their shops all day long. Only a few decades ago, the Khmer Rouge was committing genocide and destroying the country, and now The Kingdom of Cambodia seems to really be on the rise.

Tomorrow is Monday when our training begins. It is 10:30pm, I'm exhausted, and ready to go to bed.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

10,000 Miles Later...

Saturday, 6:23PM.

Good news: I’m alive! Right now I’m in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where we’ve settled in to stay for the next two weeks of training. There is just internet on one computer, so I’m typing this on my laptop and then transferring it to there so I can post it online.

My journey here was long but thankfully luck was with me, for all my flights were on time and nothing unexpected happened. It was overall extremely exhausting, and I only fell in and out of sleep here and there. My sense of time is still really screwed up. It’s hard to believe that the days of July 31st and August 1st were pretty much lost to transportation and change of time zones.

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 10pm Friday night. After getting through customs and obtaining my visa, I stepped outside and fully experienced the new climate. A wave of oppressive heat hit me at once. It had also been raining that day so it was incredibly humid. The weather forecast for every day from now until October: 90 degrees, 90% humidity, chance of thunderstorms.

Anyway, I figured I had to get used it. But still, nothing could have prepared me for how hot and sticky it was, even at night time. Upon leaving the airport, the other thing on my mind was that I had to find my ride from Languagecorps. However, apparently everyone in Vietnam decided to show up to watch the people who were coming outside, and I was suddenly the object of a million pairs of eyes. With my bulging, heavy backpack weighing me down, and pools of sweat forming on my brow, I sauntered off in search of my ride. The first reaction that I received, though, was that of two young girls who were in front of the crowd against the gates, who were pointing towards me and giggling, out of mockery or in sheer awe of my beauty, I will never know, but I responded in the best way possible, with a clenched mouth, noncommittal expression, and a subtle, quick raising and lowering of the eyebrows before forging off in a new direction. They responded with cries of glee or derision, but no matter, I finally found a girl holding a languagecorps sign with my name on it. Once another guy my age, Graham, showed up, we took a taxi through the city to the hotel we’d be staying at.

I’m not going to lie. My first impression of the city, as we barrelled down through the streets at night, was not the most positive. It seemed crowded, disorganized, chaotic, uncivilized. I wondered who on earth would call it the Paris of southeast Asia. It felt a lot like Athens, except I didn’t understand the language. My first observation was that most of the traffic was people on motorbikes. My second observation was that everyone on these bikes and in the cars constantly honked their horns. I guess they do it to let other people know they’re passing them, or coming into the street, or just on the road in general. I don’t know. It sure makes things noisy, though.

We got to the hotel, which is a small but quaint place in the city, and a very nice man showed me and Graham to our room. Our Languagecorps greeter gave us new cell phones and told us we’d be leaving the next morning at 8am. So, I was pretty eager to get to sleep. Unfortunately I kept waking up, even though I was really tired. Still not acclimated to the time zone. The room is nice, though, with a TV and wireless internet, and A/C which doesn’t quite work as well as I want. The next morning, Saturday morning, we repack and are on our way to Cambodia. I bring only what I need in a backpack, which is stuffed so full that I’m convinced it will explode, yet it somehow stays intact.

A man named Rick meets us at the hotel and leads us to a bus. Graham and I are joined by two girls who are a few years older than us that got there the day before us. Together we endure the 6-hour ride to Phnom Penh, complete with border check-points. We stop for lunch but it’s 11am and I’m not really hungry. Plus I think the hot weather just saps the hunger out of me. I figure I should eat something though so I pick some fried fish and spicy vegetables, and they give me some rice, too. I also get a weird citrus-y soda called Soursod or something. I don’t eat much of it, though, because the fish is riddled with tiny bones and the vegetables are really quite spicy. The whole thing only costs me $2.50, though, so it’s not much of a waste.

Back on the bus again, and for some reason they decide to show us Rambo II, which takes place in Vietnam. Followed by this are some really bad pop music videos in English by what I can only assume are Vietnamese pop stars. Our tour guide is this small, attractive girl who always seems collected and full of poise. She interrupts the programming now and again to give us a lengthy message in Vietnamese, then translates it somehow into a few sentences in English.

At Phnom Penh, we’re given a ride to the languagecorps center here, which is very nice. Each of us has a room, with pink sheets on the beds even for the guys. My room is huge but there’s nothing in it beside a bed and a dresser. It’s also partly under the staircase. The A/C works great, though. Hopefully I can sleep well tonight.

For the past couple hours, we’ve been hanging out here. We took a little tour of the area and found an open-air marketplace with fresh food and pottery and cheap DVD’s (I bought In Bruges for 2 bucks). And no trip around the market would be complete without being pestered every minute to go on a ride on a motorbike.

Later tonight, we should explore some more and go out to dinner somewhere. People in other languagecorps programs from countries like Thailand are also coming for the joint training.

It will be two weeks before I’m back in Vietnam. They told me it would be one week, but when I got here, it magically became two. Anyway, my final impression of the city will have to wait. After reflecting, I concluded that I need to remember not to judge based on appearances, and even if something appears chaotic and doesn’t fit into my idea of what a “modern city” should look like, it doesn’t mean the place doesn’t have a soul. It is hard to tell if the local people are friendly or not. Their faces seem inscrutable to me. But I should not jump to conclusions. Sometimes it takes time to get used to a new home. Once something becomes more comfortable, what once was scary is suddenly second nature.

I took a few pictures but it's not uploading now, so I'll try again some other time.

Until next time.