Being Happy with Little Things in Life

30 Mar
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How local is local

Traveling a few months has a big impact on one’s perks and pleasures. It’s wonderful how you get enchanted by the little things in life – give me a sunset and a hammock and I’m in heaven. Your standard of living alters and the most simple thing bring a smile to your face – just the view of cheese makes me utterly happy.

Traveling to remote places like Pailin or Kep (Cambodia) also forces you to get back to basics, because there basically is nothing else but the basics. It also becomes so blatantly clear that you are a ‘barang’ (foreigner) and often the only one in the village.

Living Cambodian Style

I had the pleasure of sharing a flat with a Cambodian friend in Pailin (see also Pailin Picture Post) and even though he was reasonably well off and working for the local government, he stayed in a sort of

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The bahtroom - squat toilet

dorm (20 US$/month): a row of bare rooms with attached bathrooms and a space to cook (i would not call it a kitchen). Depending on your standard of living you could add a mattress to the wooden bed frame, plug in a television, a fridge, a fan in the 2 electricity plugs.

The bathroom consisted of a squat toilet and a basin of water next to it – the only water around which you make run yourself – to flush the toilet, to shower, to wash clothes or vegetables, to cool yourself down, etc. And when the water was running low you’d have to ring the water truck to come and fill up the basin (a few hundred liter for half a dollar). A great way to become very conscious about your water consumption!

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Cooking yummy food

The kitchen basically was an empty concrete room with a table: cutlery and crockery was in baskets on the floor, foodstuffs were hidden away in buckets with lids (to keep other hungry creatures out) and the stove was a folding camping gas stove that was only mounted when needed (and disassembled again after use). There was a back door from the kitchen, which was opened for light, to let the fumes escape, but also to throw out all the water and (disposable) waste on the field (and scavanging dogs) behind.

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The bedroom, living room, dining room, only room

The walls were concrete, with some licks of paint here and there but not all over (?) and air was flowing freely through the house… which also meant that mosquitoes had free access. But no worries,  each evening we would get the extremely toxic and efficient spray out and kill whatever creatures were in sight (and have some ambient perfume for the night). The 6 dorm rooms shared walls with each other, which also meant you would share also the noise with each other… All different kind of noises… Hm

Filling your tummy

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Everything fresh from the market

All food basically came from the local market as there were hardly any shops around – and the shops that did exist looked pretty much like market shacks/stalls anyway. So vegetables were fresh, meat hopefully too because there was no fridge at the market – the meat came directly from the slaughtered cow or pig to the improvised wooden plank tables and flies at the market – until it was sold. Or it would be turned into doubtful sausages the next day…

Having gone through quite enough of exotic food already (frogs, intestines, liver, crushed chicken, whole fried birds, tons of chillies, etc) with far too much rice and noodles, I thought to surprise my friend with some western food:

  • potato-carrot ‘stoemp’ (Belgian style mash) with some kind of meat improvisation according what we found at the market (sausages are already doubtful meat in Europe – so here I certainly didn’t want to risk it) – and try to cook this in one pot and one wok on one stove – serving it hot at the same time.
  • French style thin pancakes – but try to bake those in a wok!
  • And i improvised some Asian desert: sticky coconut rice with mango and fresh bananas from the trees in front of the house…
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My improvised belgian coffee machine

Luckily we had imported some milk (in cartons) from Battambang. Also yoghurts, cheese, wine, muesli, etc had to be  imported from the city… However Coca Cola and beer was everywhere, or we would climb into the coconut tree to drink really fresh coco-nut (mmmmm). Coffee was also not such a common drink, so I improvised my own coffee maker (to use the packet of Lao coffee I bought).

A quaint day in the countryside

So what do you do in the middle of nowhere… Well, you just ‘BE‘. My mate had to work, so out of solidarity I would get up at the ungodly hour of 7 (even though life in Cambodia starts at 5-6am) and prepare breakfast while he was splashing himself with the bucket. Basically that came down to peal the fruits for the muesli & yoghurt: long an, mini mango (ma pram), rambutan, bananas from our tree etc (I guess I discovered already 10 new fruits since I arrived here). The local breakfast here would be some kind of noodle soup… but we were doing the international thing.

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Roaming around the countryside

When my ‘husband‘ went to work, I’d then do the dishes (in a bucket on the floor), like a real house-husband, wash some clothes (in the same bucket on the floor), do some shopping (using body language as nobody spoke english), and going to 8 dufferent vendors to get all the ingredients for one dish, etc.

For the rest, I would take the motorbike and roam around the countryside. I would smile to the family next door (who is living 2 adults & 2 children in one dorm room) because no common language. I would read my book (finally some time for reading) – life is hard…

One of the evenings, one of the neighbours invited us for a party: this basically involved going to a local restaurant, ordering the most crazy food (frogs, intestines,…), and lots of beer… That’s the moment when you learn the local words for ‘cheers’, ‘bottoms up’ and the like. The people of the tables next door were curious to see a barang there, so they would also come to our table to toast with me. Luckily beer in Cambodia (S.E.Asia) comes with ice – so downing a glass of beer is easier (less quantity, more water) – but we still got drunk enough…

Being the only white guy

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The eternal helloeeees

One thing is to be the only white guy, the other one is to be the only gay (Vips can read more here). Being white in small faraway places is a unicum. Whether it is in Pailin, Battambang, Kep; people invariably notice you and make you know they noticed the ‘barang’. Children’s impulse reaction is to shout ‘hello‘, even if you are racing past them on a motorbike. Apparently it’s the thing parents teach their children, like we would teach our children to give a kiss or shake hands.

Other reactions often concern the nose or the skin. Many just stare at me and touch their nose, with this look of longing in their eyes. Not sure why a big nose like mine would be attractive… Everybody here dreams of white skin, to the extent that the moisturising creams are developed to have a whitening effect (and we in europe put fake tan in the creams – crazy world).

At the market, one of the older women exclaimed “wow look at that barang, how i would love to hug him” as my friend translated… Good thing that I like the Asians (more for Vips here). Why do we always like what we don’t have…

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The impression of a white guy

The most problematic part of being the ‘barang’ is the language barrier: you can hear they are talking about you – because ‘barang’ appears in every second sentence, but you dont know what they say. Or once I went by bike down the countryside and went to a little riverside place for lunch. The waitress, who speaks no english whatsoever, brings the menu, in nice Khmer writing (no english). So in those moments the impersonations of chicken or cows come in handy…

Another (possible) effect of being white is that in the pharmacy the lady proposed to me directly ‘condoms plus‘. At first I was confused, not understanding what would be the plus. But when she opened the package the plus turned out to be lube – how practical – I didn’t even have to ask for it. Assuming that I don’t look that queeny, she was probably draing other conclusion about ‘barang’ ???

I caught myself even elbowing my friend when there was another ‘barang’ lost in the village where we were – as if it was a curiosity, worth to start whispering about, behind your hand… Maybe I should look in the mirror again…

Being happy with little things

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Lovely recycled tyre flaming flip flops

When you are away from civilisation, with limited access to the usual commodities, you really start to appreciate stupid little things.

  • a home made improvised drip coffee
  • a spaghetti carbonara dinner with cream, bacon, CHEESE and WINE brought by visitors from Phnom Penh
  • rain – lovely to to cool yourself and the temperature down (because no aircon)
  • 1 $ for a haircut and a shave (he even did my face, ears & nose !
  • getting flip flops made from recycled car tyres in a surreal flaming design
  • internet cafe in the back of someone’s living room with the granny sleeping next to me
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