...thirty-six waking hours later I found myself spat by the metal tube at Vaclav Havel International Airport - formerly known as Ruzynē, and bewilderedly joined my brother, my dad and my niece to fall in the car and tackle the last hour on four wheels via one much needed coffee stop which made me less of a zombie for the remainder of the journey home.
When I said I wanted to be cold my wish was heard and granted. Thoughts do become things, so choose the good ones - a well meant piece of advice by the Universe. The lazy mercury in my parent’s old outdoor thermometer doesn’t like to climb much over zero in the mornings and by the evening, having traveled to maybe 8 or 10 during the day, it’s down to zero again and falling. It’s absolutely brilliant. I can see my breath and the air is so crisp that it cuts right through to my bones. Newly emerging leaves shiver all the way down to their chlorophyll and my ears hurt. I find that it’s hard to speak as my face is frozen and although there is a glimmer of hope in the eyes of the locals that spring is already here, I think they are crazy! But it’s the greatest thing not to be sweating at all!
spring flowers shivering in the cold
Living in constant heat can leave a mark on your sanity. There are temporary (and expensive) measures to cool yourself down but in the end the heat always wins. It is true that old bones creak a fair bit less in hot and humid climates, but it is also true that one sweats like a piggie, there is no point making any effort appearance-wise as your face will melt and hair become one cluttered mess sticking to your neck and all in all, mentally, it’s just plain exhausting.
The cold can also get to you but carefully stacked and thought out layers make all the difference. You can wrap up warm and keep warm by moving, drinking mulled wine (not both at the same time advisably) or sleeping under several blankets.
Ehrm.... yes, I do take photos of other people's laundry....
But what does Karma Laundry got to do with it? What IS this Karma Laundry???
Well, as the name suggests, using Karma Laundry - you get what you deserve! In Cambodia, as we know, it’s pretty normal not owning a washing machine but instead drop off dirty laundry nearby and support the local economy by providing jobs to our neighbours, sweet little ladies who do a pretty decent job cleaning our garments and linen for little money. Mostly I get back what I drop off, only occasionally, despite their sophisticated tagging and labelling system using coloured strings, an item arrives which leaves me baffled. If I get back tiny little shorts big enough to cover only part of one leg, should I take it that sliming down is advised by the laundry committee? I never bought this towel with bright green dinosaur on it! And, wait a minute, where is my favourite purple top? I return the items which I have not purchased and sometimes I get back other bits and pieces returned by others so mostly it works pretty well. Let’s face it, despite lamenting that “I have nothing to wear” my wardrobe is pretty full (of mainly black things) and I can hardly track if an item or two have gone missing.
Having said that, I did notice that I was missing some items in the course of the last year. Randomly I would think of my blue speckled singlet or the light cotton shirt I remember having and being ideal for hot tropical days. I assumed that Karma Laundry took them away from me and it was too late to do anything about it. Damn you, Karma Laundry!
Then I climbed up a chair and took a cardboard box full of my clothing leftovers from my mum’s cupboard, the same box we stored up there when I was leaving their place almost two years ago at the end of a hot summer. Out kept coming items I immediately recognised and there were many of them! Some I didn’t even recognise! Why did I even bother to come with a suitcase full of things at all? I could have easily turned up with a toothbrush and a credit card! To my delight I found enough clothes never to have to go shopping again, and to my horror I found underwear - previously discarded as unsightly and “use in emergency situations only!", being in much better shape than the items still residing in my current wardrobe. I think I will go shopping after all.
I am so sorry, Karma Laundry, you did not deserve my assumption that you retained my items! Please forgive me and let’s be friends again, OK?
It’s been one of these years again.
People have come, stayed and gone. Entered our lives, became friends, shared laughs and heartaches, created our little close-knit community and then, one day, the time for them to move on came and they were gone. Just like that.
I was once part of an "Anna pack" - there were four of us. Three of the four Annas were tall, three were curly, three were working in tourism and three had a surname beginning with B. Needless to say all Annas were good friends. You can imagine that it was hard to refer to us individually so we had to invent nicknames. The Annarchy times are long gone now. The Russian is living her life in Bali, McK is now a Phnom Penh resident and Baldie will soon be a Londoner once again. The photo Anna, me, is all that is left of what was once great and powerful - see below!
Many chins have been scratched and many articles written on the topic of the transient nature of our lives in Cambodia as expats. Those of us who have resided in the Kingdom for more than couple of years tend to be wary of strangers and tend to dish out particles of our fragile selves in carefully measured doses - only to those who deserve our time. If you think that it’s cold nosed, unfriendly and downright big headed and snobbish, wait until you are countlessly asked the same questions over and over again: "Hey, what’s your name?” “Where are you from and how long have you been here?” "Wow - do you like it?” Let me think about that for a moment. And while I was thinking the person had moved on. Energy saved.
"Are you going to stay here forever?" is another good one. I wonder why “forever” becomes such an issue with people when they encounter you living in a country different to where you were born/brought up. I can hardly imagine Mr Smith walking out one morning on his street, greeting his next door neighbour: “John, in all seriousness, do you think you are going to stay here forever?” It’s a funny one. John will probably shrug and say “I dunno, mate, is everything alright?” and will have a worrying expression on his face. I say the same. I dunno. I have not mastered “forever” yet.
The fact is that we live and work in a holiday town, a small town that attracts a huge number of visitors who are gone in a few days. Siem Reap, though, is also a place where many (mostly) young people find themselves wanting to stay. The vibe must be very strong and many end up being teachers, others wind up with the many NGOs or even pick up a “proper” job in tourism. Teachers, don’t hate me - for those of you who stay beyond the one month period and manage to sustainably teach the Cambodian youth more than ABC I have a huge respect. For the rest? Read a little on “voluntourism" and why it’s not such a great idea.
And so we chat, we click and find common ground and similar sense of humour and learn about our friends’ varied backgrounds. We are a creative, unusual and adventurous crowd. We don’t (at least for now) belong to the drudgery of “nine-to-five” boring jobs back home, cold winters, tax returns, and the daily grind of “their” rat race. We mostly don’t own a car or know what the latest fashion is. Some of us have health insurance. We live a simple life and take pleasure in socialising with our friends. We really, really, really appreciate air conditioning and wonder how we are ever going to afford our drinking habits back home - IF we ever go back that is.
Well, here we go. I have been counting the days to my departure to my “homeland” which is kind of fitting. We are celebrating Khmer New Year during which many locals return to their homeland. It seems that everybody’s homeland is in my neighbourhood though and I am not entirely happy about it. That aside, my time to fly out (not forever) has come around rather quickly. It seems that the anticipation of great things to come grants more pleasure than the event itself. I feel, instead of elated sense of happiness that my day is finally here, the need to put a handbrake on and slow things down a bit. How can I be here now and in a few hours in a completely different country, time zone, weather …. It’s kind of scary. The rose tinted glasses of anticipation of great things are similar to the rose tinted glasses of memories. When reality hits it normally takes a few days to find your bearings and get your sense of “normalness” back.
Why do you do this to me, Cambodia? Why do you dish up the finest, breeziest mornings with blue skies and fluffy white clouds just before I am to depart to cooler climates? Why do I feel that I am going to miss something great here?
I am going to miss my friends and my cat. The comfort of my apartment. My freedom and independence. My work even! I will be cold. But that’s what I wanted, isn’t it? With cheese on top. Yes! Suck it up and get on that plane!
And for those who have done it with no return ticket? Have a nice life!
Warning: the text below may be stating the obvious.
Some people have their bucket list, I have a list of buckets. The big blue one in my spare bathroom, the big red one under the kitchen sink and various other small ones scattered throughout the apartment. Full of water in case the power goes off and there is not a trickle to wash the sweat off or rinse off dishes before the ants beat me to it.
It’s that time of year again when insanity hangs in the thick air, slowly swirling in the rhythm of lazy fans, cicadas are screaming (because they too are hot??) and power bills reach new astronomical heights. My a/c pony gets a good run for his money - hang on, MY money! While my family on the other side of the globe are slipping on ice and counting the days to see the first blade of grass appear from under the snow, I am slowly losing my will to live and the only acceptable way of cooling down the system is an ice cold beer or two.
Cold showers are no longer possible and sometimes showers alone are not possible due to power cuts and hence the buckets. Only recently I discovered that my landlord, for reasons unknown, removed the water tank from the roof so when power goes off so does my water supply. The same water tank I fought so hard for three hot seasons ago.
When we do have water, it’s the hot variety of the liquid of life. And I mean almost scolding hot. It’s “town water” running through the veins of my house. Before it hits my taps it sits in a silver tank on the roof below in the sweltering heat. Then it travels through sun exposed pipes reaching dangerously high temperatures. Luke warm is the coolest on the “Vanna house water scale” and there is nothing that can be done about it.
In the town of million and one hotels there is always the possibility to dip into one of the pools but that too resembles floating in a womb so not much refreshment there. Can somebody give me a giant ice bucket? Or maybe I should hang out with the ice delivery man every morning, he has the coolest job in the country.
With my holiday looming, the arrival into a country where current temperature doesn’t even reach double digits is a very sweet promise of good days ahead. On the other hand, having searched my wardrobe high and low I can only find a few items with long sleeves so there is a slight worry that my extremities may freeze off in about two weeks’ time. Let’s see.
But at least there won’t be ants. Not like here where I am certain I in fact live in a giant ant nest around which Vanna carefully constructed his apartment block. They come from every crack in the tiles, walls and through gaps in doors and windows. I have tried mechanical barriers (blue tack - in the long run ineffective and also unsightly), chemical warfare with questionable results, weapons of mass destruction but I think I am fighting a losing battle here.
I block them from one end and they come back from the other. They don’t even come for food, although the cat drops plenty. Once I have found a floating ant nest in one of my buckets. The big red one under the kitchen sink. Explain that to me. Is it all on purpose?
So, as mother nature starts to tease us with fluffy cloud formations, wind picking up speed and light changing colour, we long for the rains already having forgotten how much we wanted them to stop last year. Or something like that. Greener grass on the other side of the fence and all that jazz. Please, just pretty please, make it rain! Everything will be just a bit more bearable. The dust from the thousands of building sites in town needs to be washed away and we need to start afresh. But we still have at least another dry month to go, temperatures will rise a little more to keep us dripping, celebrations of Khmer New Year will commence shortly with decibels out of control and all of the above were precisely the deciding factors for my (return) ticket to freedom, cold air, misty mornings, cold rain, fog, cheese and beer. Happy holidays to me!
Although they are not just for Christmas, it really was meant to be for only a few weeks. I swear. The intention was always there. Until she was old enough. Old enough for what? I don’t know...
When I talked to one of my guests about Squeaky recently (needless to say that she does have her own facebook page...), they asked how many did I have? Alarmed I wondered if I was starting to display the signs of a crazy cat lady already…. Only one, just one, I replied….
This whole kitty business started when four little fluffs literally fell out of the ceiling in our shared office here in Siem Reap. Their mother wasn’t in sight at that time. She never made it back and nor did the three weak kittens who we just couldn’t keep alive despite our best combined efforts. Nothing replaces mum’s warm fur and steady flow of milk. What we had was straws, cow milk and not a lot of knowledge how to tend to two week old abandoned kittens.
And so mother nature played her cruel role once again, survival of the fittest in plain sight. What I saw that day was a tiny disheveled skinny creature behind glass doors, standing on her back legs, front paws outstretched, screaming for her chance of survival with her last sibling dead next to her. My heart broke and she came home with me that evening in a tiny basket. There is not a doubt that with her two paws in the grave she would not have made it through the night.
I never planned to have pet(s) in Cambodia. It’s a huge responsibility, they limit one’s freedom and with the transient nature of our expats’ community, nobody is able to put an accurate label on the length of their planned stay. But that’s just an excuse anyway, isn’t it? Can those of us who love animals be responsible pet owners here for at least some time before our turn to leave the Kingdom of Wonder comes? Is it better to give creatures loving and safe home for at least some time of their life rather than leave them to fend for themselves in the wide open? To have them neutered and vaccinated? A question for a long debate, no doubt. However, at times of rescue these serious questions are pushed aside and replaced by more pressing issues: will she make it through the night?
And so Squeaky was (re)born. Huge blue eyes, protruding belly, skinny legs, almost full tail with only a small kink at the end of it and broken whiskers. Estimated two or three weeks old maximum. Fed by a tiny bottle purchased in Angkor Market (one really has to wonder what gems they stock!) and eventually kitty pouches full of mashed up fish, she grew slowly losing the smell of sour milk. Biting and goofing all along and doing so still.
Now the whiskers have grown back and kitty doesn’t fit into the palm of anyone’s hand anymore. She smells fresh, like straw and summer. Sweet sweet kitty….. But... my arms look like I have been self harming for years. The reality is that kitty has sank a few teeth and claws into my flesh while playing rough as torties do. And I tease her so it's almost half deserved.
She’s been fully vaccinated and now is on the waiting list to have her lady bits taken out to prevent any more kitties being born should she manage to escape the fortress of my apartment one day. I pray to gods of fur that her kitty desires don’t overtake her before the spaying can be done.
I was once somebody who would turn her nose up at people letting their animals sleep in bed with them and suddenly I find something soft and furry pressing against my bum at night, keeping me warm. Warmer that I would need or want to be. Only when the cat (and the ants) have been fed can the kettle be put on the boil in the morning. Something somewhere went wrong and all control has been lost.
My collection of Sakura nicknacks is diminishing and the kitchen cupboard is becoming bare - well sort of. Some items were broken and some removed as prevention. Cat owners will understand that prevention is better than breakage. We are finally getting to the point, see? Thanks to my cat I am becoming an involuntary minimalist.
Hoarding breakables just make no sense and I am learning the hard way. I still think, though, that having working lights DOES make perfect sense but the cat thinks otherwise, light now shattered, hint of glee in kitty’s eyes… Mind you, I could have misinterpreted it for all I know. She could have been saying how very sorry she was for being clumsy…..
She likes showers (thanks to ambitious parents’ training), kitchen sponges, biting all extremities of the human body, tissues, brooms and mops, plastic bags and all bags really, anything string related, hair ties, meowing at corners, running around like a crazy rabbit, blueberry yoghurt pots to lick and suckling on bedsheets in the morning. And fish, lots of fish.
It’s a funny furry daughter of mine with golden green eyes and catitude and it’s hard to imagine my life without her. Awwwww. Crazy cat lady you say? I am half way there and proud of it!
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.