I moved house today with all my possessions. It cost me just $3.00 to travel 9km with all my luggage. Tarak collected me in his really posh Tuk Tuk and we pottered along the highway at 20kph, through the police road block which has been there everyday this week, ready to stop anyone who may be infringing the helmet rule or whatever, and we arrived safely in Mongkul Borei at 10am.
My new home is a ground floor room just across the road from the hospital in the house owned by the hospital administrator and his wife, an anaesthetist. I’m not sure who exactly comprise the whole household but it does include two grandsons aged about 4 and 2 years. I think I shall soon learn the Kmai words for car, truck, bus, chicken, duck, buffalo and so on from their reading books. I’ve had my first lesson already.
All this past week I’ve been living in a posh hotel. Posh because it costs $8 per night instead of my $6 accommodation allowance for dwellers in the Provinces but it has been worth every cent (a litre of bottled water, soap and toilet paper included in the price). The daily journey to the hospital on the moto (bike) has been pleasant enough and I have survived on one dose of pain killer a day. My back is steadily improving I’m glad to say. I’ve been going through lots of documents, both Cambodian Ministry of Health and internet downloads in preparation for meeting the Hospital Director on Monday. Very timely has been the Royal College of Obstetricians’ publication on maternal deaths in the UK called “Saving Mothers’ Lives” which is produced once every three years and which came out this week. I obtained it from the website along with Acrobat Reader X which allows me to annotate and highlight text in a pdf document – just perfect timing!
[Excuse me, the chair has just fallen off the plug and my power supply went off … OK, that’s fixed it. It’s balanced on one leg to make sure I get a good connection. The plug is in backwards because there’s no room for the earth pin, maybe you wouldn’t understand…]
Well, Saturday was my first day off and I arranged with my moto rider to go to visit a village where stone masons carve statues, another village where weaving and silk worm breeding is done traditionally and a reservoir where there is a resident population of the rare Sarus cranes as well as other waterfowl. It seemed like a good idea when I planned it. We set off at first light and I wore my WRU jacket as it was cool on the moto. The sun was rising as we headed out on highway 6 towards Siam Reap under the banner on the edge of town wishing everyone Happy New Year 2010 (?!).
After 45 mins we turned north off the tarmac onto a red dirt road heading off across the flat land into nowhere. There were a few other bikes, trucks, cars and Chinese tractors each raising plenty of dust, each bouncing along as we were, depending heavily on coiled springs, padded backsides and dodging the bigger potholes. Either side of the road the rice fields stretched away to the horizon, most of them burnt stubble at this time of year. No fences and few trees aside from those around the clusters of houses we passed from time to time and only a few pathetically thin cows. All the cows here are thin and the ribs show through but the buffalos are fat. I reckon in the time of Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat Pharoah must have dreamt of 7 Cambodian cows and 7 Cambodian buffalos. From time to time egrets and other birds would rise into the air and once we saw a flight of what I took to be the cranes we were seeking although we were miles from the reservoir. After an hour of this rough ride I was ready for a break as we pulled over in the village of Phnom Sarok to eat breakfast (boiled rice of course) and remove my jacket.
Onwards through villages and narrow streets with tree poles for fences, houses on stilts, dogs, cows, people, hens and chicks and open fields again. Giant cranes and earth movers building an irrigation canal with Japanese money … again. Wet fields, lotus flowers, distant villages with coloured roof tops among the trees, swallows and butterflies, everything is a feast for my hungry eyes.
We arrive at last at Trapeang Thmar Reservoir, so wide that the other side is a thin line of green in the distant haze. Enquiries direct us eastward along the high embankment towards the wet lands where the Sarus crane lives. It’s miles away. All along the bank of this huge reservoir are moored small canoe-like boats in various states of repair and sunkenness. Some are able to float enough for fishermen to use out on the water, but there are only a few men fishing. Others wade out waist deep to trawl with nets and chase the fish into their traps. The ubiquitous white egrets sit on poles out in the water or flap lazily along seeking their food. Some have made friends with the buffalo and presumably acquire some gain from perching high on their backs. No sign of a stork or a crane however. Eventually we reach shallower waters and the wet lands where there are more boats but not a single crane. It’s 9.30am, we’ve been on this bike for over 3 hours already and we haven’t seen a single crane for sure, not the kind with wings anyhow.
It’s been a case of ‘long time, no see’.
I’ll tell the story of the weavers and the stonemasons in another post, because I’m just recovering from today’s lunch – another ‘no see’ experience which I feel I need to share with you – but as far as yesterday’s expedition goes, we arrived back in Sisophon after 7 and a half hours mostly on the back of the bike (well, I was on the back, the driver was in front naturally) and I could hardly get off. My legs were like John Wayne’s after a day in the saddle and my arms were literally cooked by the sun. I put on sunblock at midday when I realised how long the journey was taking but rather too late. One has to learn these lessons … though I do remember falling asleep on the beach as a teenager and I’m still learning the same thing at 60 something.
Anyway I went for lunch today to my favourite lady who runs a food stall on the street just outside my new house. I had lovely omelettes there this week, thin like pancakes but filled with bean sprouts and vegetables, and I thought I would eat there again. She had plenty of eggs but that’s all I could see today. Still, it’s easy enough to order lunch even if you can’t ask what’s on the menu today. She smiled as ever (I wonder on reflection was it a knowing smile?) and offered me four boiled eggs from the pan. The eggs are rather large and I’m thinking they could be duck eggs. Pale blue shells and hot, ready to eat. Small green leaves and mixed salt/pepper are offered as accompaniments. I proceed to crack the first egg with my spoon and immediately realise what delicacy I’m about to ingest. Feathers and blood vessels appear as I peel away some of the shell. A favourite food here is the half developed chick in the fertilised egg. The yolk is still present, part consumed by the growing embryo and alongside it are various recognisable parts of the early chick. Recognisable if you keep your eyes open that is. This is the only food on the stall and the lady has served me her best. I cannot show any reaction other than pleasure and delight in the lovely lunch. So I sprinkle the salt and pepper, take a small mouthful of green leaves and take the first spoonful. It’s surprisingly easy to extract from the shell. I’ll spare you the rest of the detail except to say that I heard the locals drink what’s left of the fluid in the egg when the solid parts are gone, so I do as they do. Now it took a firm decision and some courage on my part I can tell you to reach for the second egg and I treated it in the same way as the first and it was truly edible as gastronomic experiences go and truly disgusting from the aesthetic viewpoint but I drank the dregs of the second with a sense of achievement if not satisfaction that I hadn’t let the British down. Stiiff upper lip and keep the eyes averted. That’s the way. No see. It does repeat a bit for the next few hours and it’s best not dwelt upon too much afterwards.
It’s been hard enough to write about but I did think you ought to know…