There was an old woman…

It’s Tuesday and I can’t believe we are at the end of my first week in the country already.

Tuesday morning I ventured to the Psar Orussey – a huge covered market where the stalls are all close together in narrow dingy aisles with the wares stacked and spilling onto the walkways which are also the pedestrian and delivery barrow routes and where almost everything is on sale – I was looking for a paper punch.  Stalls were all opening for business at 7 am – electrical goods, fabric, rope and fishing nets, and cooked food already.  Inside the market we obtained directions using cyclo/tuk tuk commands – bot chvveng (turn left), bot s’dam (turn right) and tao trong (go straight) just to clarify where the stationer might be.  Unfortunately our cyclo training had not included ‘go upstairs’ – so we wandered around in ever decreasing circles until we could not get any closer to our perceived destination.  Still confused we emerged into daylight only to be directed back inside and then we realized there’s more than one floor!  The stall we needed had been just overhead for most of the time.  Once we found the stairs we soon located the stationer who stocked everything you might imagine in a floor area of about 3 m square and 3 m high.  Success! One ‘prō dop cho’, cost $1 and some highlight pens.  I must go back to Psar Pencil and show the paper punch to the shop assistant there …

After a very full morning learning about the three main programmes of VSO Cambodia: Maternal & Child Health, Livelihoods (fishing and forestry) and Education and after another very full lunch eating boiled rice with very tasty meat and veg dishes, I seized the opportunity to nip next door to Psar Pencil to demonstrate my new ‘prō dop cho’ to the young shop assistant.  I found him stacking shelves and I triumphantly produced my new paper punch.  ‘Prō dop!’ he said with a smile.

[Hmm, I could tell you that … now!  But yesterday you couldn’t understand the word ‘Pencil’ despite my best sign language relying heavily on the name of the shop and using all my meagre Kmai language resources and today you impress me with ‘Prō dop!’]

Then he’s off to the stationery section we had so much trouble locating yesterday to see if he can get me a paper punch.  Doh! (That’s not Kmai, that’s a quote from Homer Simpson.)  There wasn’t one there yesterday, we had looked everywhere, we had exchanged English and Kmai words for ‘Grammar’ and ‘Book’ and ‘Dictionary’ and ‘pen’ and ‘sharpener’ and ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ and ‘new’ and ‘news’ (I though we were getting off the point by that time) and there wasn’t a paper punch on the shelf apart from the single hole paper drill costing $17 that would shame a post-hole-borer and I thought we had agreed I didn’t want that, nor would I pay anything like that price.  Why would I want another anyway?  I just wanted to show I’d found one in case he was worried about me and to let him know the name and nature of the simple device I’d been seeking.  Fearing another pointless language tutorial beside the English Grammar books I said ‘Orkun’ and bade him a hasty ‘Choup neah pêl krowee’ though I wasn’t at all certain that he’d be seeing me later and I scooted back to VSO Program Office in time for the briefing on Staying Healthy in Cambodia…

Diarrhoea, worms, parasites, viruses, bacteria; tummy bugs, dog, snake and mosquito bite; gastro-intestinal infection, dengue, depression, chronic fatigue, malaria, TB, lice, enteritis, bilharzia, Hepatitis B; Japanese encephalitis, fungal infection, rabies, stomach trouble; oh yes – and HIV again.  And did I mention bowel problems?

There’s actually not a high incidence of HIV/AIDS here though health care workers in maternity run the risk with blood at childbirth and needle stick injury during surgery aside from person-person transmission that seems to crop up in every VSO training session.  Everyone’s in shock and withdrawal by the end of the talk.  So glad I got my First Aid Kit sorted out already, complete with super glue and some super scissors.  The only thing I haven’t got is worm medicine which I could have picked up when I took the dog to the vet for his treatment last Tuesday morning in Bala. I had popped the tablet on the back of his tongue, held his mouth closed and stroked his throat until he licked his nose as the vet taught me and Presto!  The tablet disappeared.

Paul and I decide to disappear for a walk to the Tonlé Sap after the session, before the evening meal and before the sun goes down, as this is a good time of day for temperature and light outdoors.  On the way we cross several roads in our new found confidence with Phnom Penh traffic, getting a buzz every time we arrive on the other side, giving each other high fives after a particularly exciting six lane crossing.

Crossing here not worth a High Five

We inspected the various food stalls reminding ourselves of the lessons in reducing the risk of diarrhoeal disease – buy fresh meat and fish early morning, not evening; ensure food is newly and properly cooked; even cooked food may be contaminated by the vendor at the point of sale and of course the preparation of drinking water and hand-washing.  On one road junction close to the river is a vendor’s barrow piled high with cooked tarantulas, grasshoppers and crickets tended by a little lady who might have been the original ‘Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly’, except that she’s very much alive and it’s the insects that are dead.  She’s alive enough to shoo me away when I produce the camera and ask if I can take a picture.  I have no idea how she manages to catch so many of these creatures or whether she breeds them or maybe there’s a fly, cricket and spider farm somewhere supplies her.  They are said to be honey glazed and tasty, perhaps a bit crunchy but I can’t imagine enjoying swallowing flies, or spiders to catch flies…

By this time we have reached the river where hundreds of people are taking an evening stroll or just watching the river traffic pass by and I realize it’s time for that seminal symbolic moment – to dip my toe into the water.  I have no idea what the curious monks might be thinking as we clamber down the steps where a boy is swimming 50 meters out in the warm but obviously  brown and dirty water, remove my sandals and in defiance of the warnings about dreadful water-borne diseases, I dip my white Great Toe in the Tonlé Sap.  Perhaps it’s some Barang religious custom… (white foreign people are barangs, especially the French).

Curious Monks at twilight over the Tonle Sap

It’s now time to head for home and dinner and to a washing of the feet in clean soapy water.  Successfully dodging several dozen more motorbikes, cars and cyclists and peacefully passing the Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace I am suddenly accosted by a fly which disappears up my left nostril, into my throat and deposits itself in my windpipe.  Not sure whether to cough, vomit or choke, visions of all the diseases and disasters gruesomely predicted by the Health Briefing evaporate and I see myself the victim of the tiniest fly which decides to bite me in my larynx and so whispering ‘I need a shot of adrenaline!’ before my windpipe closes with the swelling and obstructs my breathing before ever I can catch the malaria or dengue fever or Japanese B encephalitis it may be carrying. It’s all in the imagination of course and after stroking my throat several times as if I was a dog with a worm tablet I realize that Paul needs assurance that I’m still breathing.  Don’t worry, Paul!

I’m just trying to swallow a fly…



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10 responses to “There was an old woman…

  1. Andrew

    Let’s hope you continue to be able to get rice and veg, although I would love to hear what fried tarantula tastes like! It’s great to get your regular posts. Lots of love,

  2. Hilary

    Fascinating! Really gives one a ‘taste’ for where you are! You should make this into a book when you return!
    Hilary x

  3. Helen

    really enjoyed reading this one – especially the links in your thoughts and memories. xx

  4. Helen

    I think the old woman lived in a shoe and it was an old lady that swallowed a fly. I don’t know why.

  5. Hilary

    You are correct, Helen! Dad needs to tell some more Nursery Rhymes to his grandchildren to refresh his memory!

  6. Betty

    Thank you for the write-up, enjoyed the both. Hope you’re well and all the best. Keep on writing. Love Betty and Ned.

  7. I write for you! Your kind words encourage me.

  8. Peter Haydock

    Great to hear your news. amazingly descriptive and fun to read. you should have been a writer
    God bless


  9. Keith

    Hi Adrian,
    gosh what a busy time you are having and time has flown.
    Too much here to report to Rotary tonight, so can you make it to tell ’em yourself? I think we will be a bit low on numbers:-)
    Keep smiling and keep writing.
    P.S. Has your Welsh come in handy?!

    • Not much Welsh spoken or understood here but maybe Irish? Grandmother is Loak (Mrs) Iau where Iau is Thursday, Jupiter or liver in Wales but I seem to remember that name being used by my friends from Ireland when addressing an honorary grandmother. (Mary, if you read this you maybe can confirm, Iau is pronounced Y’eye.)

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