Monday, October 31, 2011

Hiring Help


I’ve never really hired household help before. Sure, I had a part-time maid in Egypt, but I never actually went through “the hiring process” with her. She started working for friends, taking care of their cats while they were away, at the recommendation of their full-time maid. Then, on the recommendation of those friends and their maid, she started working part-time for another friend. Add that friend’s recommendation, and she started working part-time for another friend. Then I became pregnant, had some difficulty, went on bed rest, and needed someone to clean my house now. So we hired her, after meeting her once or twice when she was working for friends, without even an interview other than a quick phone conversation: "When can you come? (Thursday mornings) We'll pay you $X (as you like, Ma'am)." She worked out great for us, and when we left Egypt, another friend who had just arrived hired her solely on the basis of our recommendation. Cycle completed.

No such cycle here in Cambodia. Sure, one embassy contact recommended her cook (who works from well before dawn until mid-morning for her) as our afternoon housekeeper and babysitter. But her cook, who in most respects sounded like she was sent from Heaven above, is going to be taking some significant time off early next year for childbirth. Now, I hate the idea of discriminating against pregnant women—but at the same time, I know that (1) I don’t want to pay for maternity leave for someone I just hired (if she’d been working for me and then become pregnant, it would be different because I’d have a relationship with her); (2) I don’t want to become dependent on someone and then have to do without, especially the babysitting functions if I’m taking language classes; (3) I can’t afford to give her paid time off and hire someone else to replace her at the same time; and (4) with Alexa still in “I need Mommy and only Mommy and sometimes Daddy” mode, I certainly don’t want to get her used to someone, have that person leave (being temporarily replaced or not), and then have her get used to that someone (or someone else) all over again. So, however not politically correct our decision was, Jeff and I decided to pass on this woman, however perfect she sounded in other ways.

But that left me without any recommendations from friends, as I really don’t know anyone here. And then, just to make it fun, we found out that the Khmer language class that I really wanted to take was starting—it started Tuesday, after we found out Friday! I had no babysitter, because I was counting on my eventual housekeeper to be a sometimes-babysitter when necessary. I had not expected the class to start for at least another couple of weeks, and I was caught completely unprepared.To make matters worse, even if I found and hired someone immediately, I knew that she couldn’t start working until the Regional Security Office had completed a background check on her and cleared her to be in my home unescorted. I have no idea how long that process takes here—to a large degree, it depends on how organized and responsive the local police force is, as our investigators have to get any pertinent records from them.

So the search was on! I quickly posted an ad on the Cambodia Parents Network (CPN)  group on Yahoo. I shot off an email to the embassy’s CLO (Community Liaison Office) to ask if they had any leads for me, even for just a temporary solution, like a family with kids Alexa’s age who wouldn’t mind if she joined their kids for a couple of afternoons a week until we hired someone. I received an almost immediate reply that the CLO would check her sources and get back to me.

Then I saw an ad on CPN that someone’s part time housekeeper was looking for afternoon work. She spoke English, cleaned well, could cook, and did some babysitting. She sounded like a gift from God just for me! Even though she wouldn’t be RSO-cleared already, I figured if I hired her long-term, I could come up with a temporary solution until she got her clearance. I called her and set up an interview for Saturday morning. Then I set to work, looking online for what exactly I should be asking a potential housekeeper during an interview.

After discarding most of the suggested questions (applicable to hotel maids more than privately employed housekeepers) and adding a few from “questions to ask your potential nanny” sites, I developed a list that I thought would give us all the information we needed to make a decision. Not that I needed any more than I already had, though, right? I mean, she cleans, cooks, cares for kids, and speaks English. And she’s available in the afternoons, when I need someone.Surely this was the woman!

She arrived 5 minutes early for her interview (“Perfect interview protocol!” I whispered excitedly to Jeff as I peeked out the window and saw the guard letting her in the gate), dressed appropriately in jeans and a nice shirt. She approached the door, took off her shoes, and entered. She seemed nervous, which was understandable. And the conversation started.

I told her what we were looking for, what her responsibilities would be, and what we would pay. Then I started asking questions. And asking them again, phrased differently. And again, phrased in yet another way, and more slowly this time. Then Jeff tried. Twice. We finally pieced together what we believed was a reasonable approximation of her job history. It was not helped by the lack of resume or letters of reference, although her first employer, for whom she’d worked for two years before the employer left Cambodia, had recently returned, and she promised us their phone number once she’d had lunch with them that day. Then we moved on to the more specific questions, which she answered mostly the way we wanted her to, but … again, only after much rephrasing and repeating.

After she left, it didn’t take Jeff and me long to agree: we’d keep looking. I did email the person who had originally posted the ad, and received a more detailed, glowing recommendation. I’m sure she would have done the work well, and I’m sure she’s a sweet girl. But I need to be able to communicate effectively with my housekeeper. And come to think of it, we never did get that phone number she promised us. So we kept looking.

The next morning, we received a phone call from a Cambodian woman who had seen my ad on CPN. She agreed to come in that afternoon for an interview.

I can’t say exactly what gave me pause about this woman. Jeff was all for hiring her. She had experience as a house cleaner and as a nanny. Her English was excellent. She had written recommendations (although, come to think of it, the one I emailed for confirmation never replied). I just had a hesitancy about her. Maybe it was that, after working as a nanny, she’d worked as a dealer at a casino and then as a translator for a company that recently went out of business, putting her back in the employment market. Jeff said that she probably wanted to go back to domestic employment because if she got on with an embassy family, she’d likely be set for many years, but I disagree. I think she left this line of work for a reason, and I think she’d leave it again. And, honestly, I didn’t like that every question she asked us had to do with money and holiday/vacation time. So we agreed that she was the one if no one else better came along quickly, but that I’d keep looking in the meantime.

On Monday, I received a response from the CLO. The housekeeper/cook/shopper of someone who’d had to curtail for medical reasons was still available. She forwarded me the recommendation. This woman sounded very good, but not perfect. She cleans, cooks, shops, and keeps good records of her expenditures so you can see she isn’t cheating you. She has good English. Because she’d worked for an embassy family, I assumed she had RSO clearance already. But she prefers a family with no children, or older children. I thought, maybe, even if she doesn’t want to work for us permanently because Alexa is so young, maybe she’d be willing to work for us temporarily, or even just babysit temporarily, until we can hire someone else.

I shot off an email to her previous employer, asking for her contact information. I didn’t expect a reply until the next day, because of the time difference, but I received one in less than an hour. The glowing recommendation continued. He explained that she didn’t want to work with young children because she has another job, one that requires her to go in only as needed, for short times, and if she’s caring for young children, she can’t go. Her arrangement with him was that she could go to her other job as needed during the day, so long as she did all of the work he needed, too. That sounded reasonable, and made me more comfortable with asking her to babysit for short times—the problem wasn’t that she doesn’t like children, and since I don’t want a full time nanny, the risk to her other job wouldn’t be as great. I called her and set up an interview for that evening.

When she came in, I almost immediately felt comfortable with her. Her English is excellent, although she did ask me to slow down a little so she could understand me better. She explained about her other job, apparently taking fingerprints for one of the Cambodian government ministries on an as-needed basis. She gets paid, but it isn’t enough to support her family, although I can see why she wouldn’t want to let it go, as she’s in a line of work without a great deal of long-term stability. She did ask about time off, but she was quick to explain that it was only because she has a 5-year-old son, and an elderly mother, and if one of them needs to go to the doctor, there isn’t anyone else who can take them. I explained what Jeff and I already had decided about paid holidays, vacation days, and sick leave, and she seemed happy with it. She was happy with the salary we were offering, although she did ask to be paid monthly instead of weekly, so she wouldn’t spend it all too fast. She was upfront about what she could and couldn't do, what she had experience doing and what she'd never done before. When it came right down to it, I liked her and felt comfortable with the idea of having her in my home.

We hired her on the spot. Jeff had discovered that she didn’t have RSO clearance, as we’d assumed, so we are waiting for that before she actually starts work. (Alexa has gone to two Khmer classes with me and has been less of a distraction than I feared. Our teacher told us yesterday that she looks like a doll.) It turns out that although she’s worked for two previous embassy families, the previous RSO didn’t keep as careful records as the current RSO does, so even though her name was submitted and approved, there aren’t any records. The current RSO had to start from scratch with her investigation. But we’re hoping she’ll be able to start next week.

And then we’ll see how good—or bad—my instincts are when it comes to hiring help.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I Need a Phone


More accurately, I need a SIM card; I have an unlocked phone.

I don’t have a Cambodian SIM card yet because foreigners must have their passport in order to get one; the person who sells it to you must make a copy of the identification page and of the page that has your Cambodian visa. I have my tourist passport, but my tourist passport has no Cambodian visa in it—no visa at all, actually, as I’ve never used it. My diplomatic passport, which has the visa, currently is in the hands of the Cambodian government, as they process my application for a diplomatic identification card. I can’t get a phone until I get that passport back.

And I need a functional mobile phone.

I don’t know about you, but for several years now, I’ve felt strange when I’ve been out and about and realized that I had forgotten my phone, or the battery was dangerously low, or anything else made it inaccessible or unusable for me. After many years of resisting, of insisting that I didn’t need one, I received one—I didn’t buy it; Jeff bought it for me so that I could call him without worrying about long distance charges (we lived in separate states at the time, and although we were only dating, it was pretty obvious that we would marry). After just a few weeks of carrying it with me, I had developed a psychological dependence on it, even though I rarely used it.

When we went overseas, my mobile phone became even more of a psychological security blanket. Imagine being in a country that isn’t your own, where the people speak a language that you can’t understand, where the culture couldn’t be more alien to you if it had descended from Mars itself. Now add in the relatively high probability of a traffic accident, or of you becoming lost, and the realization that, should you need help, there is only one place that you know, without any doubt, someone will understand you and help you. You even know the phone number by heart. But if you don’t have a phone, that isn’t particularly useful. You’re on your own, unable to contact anyone. Unable to call the embassy if there’s a problem. Unable to call your driver—who’s supposed to be waiting!—when you’re ready to leave, and you’re standing there searching for him, and he’s nowhere in sight, and you’re being harassed by beggars and vendors, and you have a baby strapped to you, two heavy bags in your hand, your diaper bag—carrying no cash and nothing valuable—over your shoulder, and your credit card and just enough cash to pay your driver in your pocket, but you’re still worried about pickpockets because how will you pay your driver if your cash is stolen and your card was stolen too so you can’t get any more cash?

Yes, I speak from personal experience. Today’s experience.

I needed to go to the supermarket. Still do, actually, even though I already went, because I don’t have a car and therefore limited my purchases to what I could handle in a tuk-tuk while having Alexa strapped to me and the diaper bag over my shoulder, meaning I have what I need for tonight and tomorrow and that’s it. I hope I have what I need for tonight and tomorrow …

Anyway, I needed to go to the supermarket. Jeff had told me that his regular tuk-tuk driver had made it a point to tell him that he was available during the day if I needed to go to the supermarket. And I wanted a driver who knows where everything is, so I don’t have to know yet, because I don’t, and I wanted a driver who could wait for me while I did my shopping so I didn’t have to know how to get home, either, or even if I did know (I did, this time), I wouldn’t have to try to tell him and gesture while holding Alexa and her diaper bag and my groceries. So I wanted Jeff’s driver. So I used the house phone to call Jeff and get his driver’s phone number, and then I used the house phone to call the driver. He agreed to pick me up at 3pm, and then called me back to ask if it was okay to wait until 3:15. Sure, whatever, no problem.

At 3:15, I walked out the gate and was greeted by a tuk-tuk driver who was waiting for me. Now, I’ve seen Jeff’s driver twice, and both times, Jeff interacted with him while I looked around at the scenery. So I’m embarrassed to admit that I wouldn’t recognize Jeff’s driver if he came up and bit me—although I probably would hit him if he came up and bit me. But this guy was waiting for me, and his tuk-tuk looked nice like the one Jeff’s driver has, and when he spoke, I didn’t understand much but I did understand Jeff’s driver’s name—twice, even. And he knew I wanted to go to the supermarket, although he thought I wanted to go to the Lucky that’s close by and I actually wanted to try the one at Soriya Shopping Center. So I thought this was Jeff’s driver. In I got and off we went.

When we arrived at Soriya, I explained that I needed him to wait for me, and that I didn’t have a phone. No problem, he’d wait. I did my shopping. I came out of the shopping center with Alexa, the diaper bag, and two bags of groceries, one of them pretty heavy (canned goods and two different types of vinegar). I had made it a point to look hard at the driver’s face and tuk-tuk, so I’d recognize him. Because he’d be waiting. Problem: Many of the tuk-tuks looked nice like his, and none of the drivers looked like him. Many, however, approached me and offered me a ride. “No, no, my driver is waiting for me.” But … I didn’t see him. One driver almost had me convinced he was my guy—he looked a lot like him, and I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I did understand the name. But then, before we actually approached his tuk-tuk, he asked where I wanted to go, and I said “Home,” and he said “Ok, where?” and I knew he wasn’t my guy. So I sent him on his way and went back to looking for my guy.

When he finally pulled up (I’d waited maybe all of 10 minutes, max, but it felt like hours), I wasn’t sure it was him. I said his name—what I thought was his name—and he said “Yes,” but I wasn’t completely convinced until he said, “You go to Lucky now?” Ah, this is my guy! I explained that I wanted to go home now, and he looked confused, apparently not noticing the two Lucky bags in my hands, but he said “Ok,” and didn’t ask where that was, so it was all good. Into the tuk-tuk I went and off we drove, as I breathed a sigh of relief.

When we arrived at my house, he said, “How you know <driver’s name>?”

Huh?

“<Driver’s name> your husband’s driver, you have a driver?”

After much confusion, I realized what had happened. The driver introduced himself to me when he first met me, not because he hadn’t spoken to me before, but because he’d never even seen me before. Jeff’s driver couldn’t make it, because he needed to be available to pick Jeff up sooner than I'd likely be done, and he sent his friend instead. His friend whose name is the same as his, with the exception that the final consonant is different. I hadn’t heard Jeff’s driver’s name twice in the initial introduction; I’d heard it once, and the friend’s name once, but because I’m still working on understanding the accent here, I didn’t catch the difference.

So I guess I not only need a phone, I need a better ear!

Written Wednesday, 19 October 2011.

Update: After previewing this post, Jeff laughed at me. The next day, he started the process of getting me one of the SIM cards that the embassy has available for family members. Two days later, I had a functional phone.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Broken

I’m a mug collector. I have several coffee mugs that embody my memories of times, places, and people.

My Egypt Cup
My most recent acquisition is my Egypt cup. I bought it early on during my sojourn in Egypt, much earlier than I intended. I had planned to wait for several months, get a feel for the place, then spend days or even weeks perusing cups, only to finally pick the one that best embodied Egypt and my experiences there. Instead, I visited a shop with a friend after a very short time in Egypt, within the first month. The shop contained handicrafts from all over the country: pottery, clothing, bags, jewelry, even tablecloths. As I perused the pottery, a single cup called to me. It did not seem to be representative of Egypt at all. In my mind, Egypt was pyramids and papyrus, sphinxes and canopic jars. This cup had two peacocks on it. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist its siren song. I purchased it, thinking that it was just a nice cup, not part of my “special” collection. I’d add my Egypt cup later. I never did. That was my Egypt cup, somehow coming to embody the country for me.

Jeff's Baby Cup
My second most recent acquisition isn’t mine; it belongs to Jeff. It’s a cup I picked up in the States when I was awaiting Alexa’s birth. I intended to give it to him at the hospital after her birth. “New Daddy, get ready to have your world rattled,” it proclaims, amidst its pastel polka dots. Not very masculine, but very Daddy-ish, appropriate for the new father of a baby girl. When Alexa came early, I forgot to take it to the hospital. I forgot all about it for the week Alexa was in the NICU. When she came home, I remembered it, but never at a good time to give it to him. I finally gave it to him three weeks after her birth, as he was packing to return to Egypt without us.

How does this relate to the title of this post? I’m sure you see it coming.

Today was supposed to be a happy day. It started out as a happy day, with the delivery of one of our four boxes of air freight (the other three somehow ended up in Rome; don’t ask because I don’t know how). They’ll come later. But we didn’t expect to receive any of it so soon, so we were happy to see what arrived. The happiness lasted until the bottom of the box. And then …

Who would pack coffee cups underneath a heavy ceramic trash can? Who would be so stupid?*

The two cups pictured above survived the trip. Others didn’t.

My South Carolina Cup
A cup, picked up at the airport near my hometown, commemorating the home of my heart. Representing my memories of childhood, of growing up in a small town where everyone knows you, or at least knows who your parents are; where your neighbor doesn’t think twice about calling your mom because a boy came over while she was at work; where your little brother can take his bike and ride all over town without a curfew and without fear (but the girls in the family always were required to stay on our street).  The memories remain. The cup is gone. I should be able to replace it. Last time I was in that airport, they still had the mugs. Ten dollars, I think.

My West Virginia Cup
A simple cup, handmade by an artist in West Virginia. Jeff humored me in my search for it, scouring shops and finally following an ad to the artist’s showroom: Gauley River Pottery. The hours we spent in the showroom, searching for just the right shape before settling on the small mug in Gauley Green, although I'd swear mine was bigger than the advertised 3x4 inches, and had more of a curve to it. Only twenty dollars to order a new one online. But will I? Even if it looked exactly the same, could it really replace the one we picked out to represent our honeymoon? Maybe, if I don’t think about the fact that it’s version 2.0, rather than the first one, now broken beyond repair. I know; I tried to piece it back together and couldn’t.

My College Cup
The cup that started it all. A graduation gift from a college professor for whom I did research, specially handmade by one of the art professors. Carried with me to graduate school, where it was used every single day. Embodying the memories of times in the lab at undergrad, joking with the professor and with my lab mates. With me through three years of hard work in grad school; capturing my first experience living on my own, without so much as a roommate. Representing my academic, social, and personal growth through some of my most formative years. Smashed beyond recognition. Irreplaceable. Gone forever.

We were told before we moved to Egypt not to take anything with us that couldn’t be replaced. We listened. We left behind the signature portrait from our wedding, our framed diplomas, my wedding dress. We even left behind the stuffed animals of our childhoods. All safely nestled in a storage unit somewhere in Maryland. But when it came to my coffee mugs, I drew the line. The joy in having them isn’t having them. It’s using them, seeing them and allowing the memories and associations to flood my mind. It was a calculated risk.

I lost.


*One of the cardinal rules of having professional movers is to watch them carefully, both to ensure that nothing goes missing and to ensure that nothing like this happens. We watched them. Unfortunately, due to unusual circumstances that I will not go into, our air freight had to be repacked in transit, while not under our supervision.

Written Tuesday, 18 October 2011.

Update Saturday, 22 October 2011: Apparently Jeff's "New Daddy" mug didn't escape unscathed, either. It has a hairline fracture in it, just enough to let the coffee ooze out, but not enough to be noticed under casual inspection. *Sigh.*

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Central Market






Central Market

We had an unexpected opportunity today to visit Central Market, one of the large mostly open-air shopping areas in Phnom Penh. Our sponsor was taking her daughter there to buy supplies for an upcoming birthday party, and she invited us to tag along. We gratefully accepted the offer and headed out for an afternoon—okay, a couple of hours—of playing tourist while maybe learning something useful about where to do some shopping.

Jewelry vendors under the dome
Central Market was not really what I expected. I think I had in mind something more like the Khan el Khalili in Cairo, which was very much geared toward tourists. There were areas of it where actual Egyptians shopped for useful or necessary items, but the areas nearest the major roads were filled with shops that catered to westerners, selling kitschy pyramids and perfume bottles and carved camels, as well as the ever-popular scarves and wooden inlay boxes. So for Central Market, I had visions of kitschy temple models and Buddhas and who knows what else, plus the obligatory scarves and t-shirts. I was way off, although there was a little of what I expected.

Fresh food
Central Market, known in Khmer as Psar Thmay (literally “New Market”), contains vendors that sell just about anything you can think of—the vast majority of it useful. I saw more clothing booths than I care to remember, selling children’s clothes, casual and dressy clothes for both men and women, and even underwear and bras (and yes, the obligatory scarves and t-shirts, too). There were shoe vendors, electronics vendors, lots of jewelry vendors. A whole row of stalls sold fresh flowers, and an entire section was dedicated to fresh foods, including fruits, spices, and fish still swimming around in small tanks. That isn’t to say that there weren’t stalls dedicated to less pragmatic goods: we also saw paintings, Buddha figures, purses, wall hangings, even one stall of wigs.

One of the main entrances
The market itself is housed in and around a bright yellow colonial-style building. The entire complex takes up a whole city block, from what I could tell. Stalls lined the sidewalks facing the streets, and more stalls were set up inside a warren of small paths that wove throughout the block. There seemed to be four main entrances to the building itself, one on each side of the block. A wide pathway, lined with stalls on both sides, led to each entrance. The center part of the building—a dome—was filled with jewelry vendors. Four arms branched out from the dome, extending toward the corners of the city block, and these sections contained all sorts of vendors, mostly clothing and electronics, at least in the two arms that we investigated.

Our purchases
We did not intend to make any purchases today; we went mostly to see the place and learn what was available, not to buy anything unless we happened upon something that we knew we needed. However, I re-learned a valuable lesson that apparently I forgot during my summer in the States: if you stop too long to look at something, you really are signaling an intention to buy. I stopped to look at some cute wall hangings that I thought may look nice in Alexa’s room or in the playroom once we get it set up. I paused too long, then compounded my error by calling Jeff over to look. The lady working the booth promptly unhooked the hangings from their peg and handed them to me—all twenty or more of them. It was catch them or let them all fall onto the pavement. I tried to tell her that we were just looking today, just getting ideas, but she either didn’t understand or, equally likely, chose not to understand. I made my third mistake by asking her how much they cost, so I would know when we came back. She started out at $5 each. I thanked her for the information and repeated that we were just looking today. Suddenly, for me, there was a “special price”—$4 each. And a bag containing another 20 or 25 wall hangings appeared out of thin air and was dumped on the table she’d just set up for that very purpose. As I continued to tell her that we were just looking today, the price dropped all the way to $2 each, and Jeff announced that we should go ahead and buy a couple. We bought five. As we left, Jeff said quietly to me, “That’s the most effective bargaining I never meant to do.” He was right. I do wonder, if we’d stuck with our original intentions just a little while longer, if the price would have dropped all the way to $1 each, or even to two for a dollar.
Flower vendors

After our purchase, we walked around a little longer, but we didn’t want to stay very long. Alexa was sleepy when we left the house and fell asleep mere moments after we arrived at the market. It was a pleasant day, temperature-wise, but having a sleeping baby pressed to your body makes it get real hot real quick. Jeff bore the brunt of that discomfort, as I had brought the camera along and, most of the time, was either snapping pictures or holding it tightly in my hand to make sure the pickpockets had no chance at it. We made a quick trip across the street to try to get a SIM card for my mobile phone—no luck, as they have to make a photocopy of my passport and visa, and my diplomatic passport (which contains the visa) is with the Cambodian government right now so they can process my diplomatic ID. After that unsuccessful foray into the mobile phone shop, we called our sponsor to see how she was doing on her shopping. She had just purchased a pair of sunglasses that wouldn’t be ready for her for another 30 minutes (maybe one day I’ll understand what the delay was all about), so we decided to just take a tuk-tuk home.

All in all, it was a successful trip. I’m not at all nervous about going there again on my own, although I’d prefer to have an idea of what things should cost so I won’t be going into my deliberate negotiations blind. We didn’t intend to, but we did end up picking up some nice decorative items that also should help deaden the echoes in our house—tile floors with relatively small area rugs, plus extremely high ceilings, with nothing on the walls yet means that this place is an echo chamber right now. And we got out and saw some more of the city, rather than staying cooped up inside as is our habit on Jeff’s days off. We even arrived back home before the rain started. Yes, I’d call it successful on all fronts.

Written Saturday, 15 October 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Boiling Water


When moving to a new home, particularly one in a different country, it always takes a little time to settle in. For me, at least, it seems especially awkward to cook in a new kitchen. We always end up ordering or going out for dinner for the first several days. Eventually, I do some grocery shopping and start the process of learning to cook in my new kitchen. The first few meals are easy ones, tried and true, difficult to get wrong, yet they always seem to yield less than stellar results all the same.

My first meal in my new kitchen (other than toasted bagels with peanut butter for breakfast) was chicken, rice, and green beans. At least it was supposed to be rice. I couldn’t find the instructions for the rice cooker that was included in our welcome kit, and I’ve never used one before, so I didn’t quite do it right. I put in too much rice, so when it swelled as it cooked, it overflowed a bit. And it didn’t all cook before I realized I had to take it out in order to avoid an explosion of rice all over my counter top and floor. And it was taking forever and a day anyway, so the baked chicken and canned green beans were getting cold. So we ended up with easy mac’n’cheese instead—the kind that cooks in the microwave.

My second dinner in my new kitchen was spaghetti, salad, and toasted French bread. First compromise: untoasted French bread, because the bread slices were small enough that I feared they’d get lost in the toaster and I really didn’t want to fire up the gas oven just to toast the bread. No problem; it was good untoasted. Salad was no problem—I used vegetable wash and the big knife from the welcome kit to clean and chop the fresh veggies, then threw them into a bowl. The spaghetti … it was supposed to be easy. I mean, really, what’s difficult about spaghetti? You boil some water, throw some noodles in it, brown some meat, drain the meat, add a jar of commercial spaghetti sauce, heat it up, drain the noodles, and combine everything. No problem, right? Easy peasy, even on a gas range (I’ve never used a gas range before, and the prospect of open flames on my stove still makes me nervous).

The problem came in the first step. You know the saying “She’s such a lousy cook she can’t even boil water”? I always thought that was such an extreme exaggeration that it didn’t actually apply to anyone. Until now. Because apparently it applies to me.

I took out the big welcome kit pot and filled it with water from the distiller. I placed it on the burner. I fiddled with the controls until I figured out how to make the burner start generating heat. The flames made me nervous, so I left the heat on medium, assuming that the water would just take a little longer to boil. Meanwhile I started browning the meat. When the meat was all brown and the water wasn’t even simmering, I turned the heat up to medium high. I added the sauce to the meat and kept stirring it so it wouldn’t stick. Twenty minutes later I turned the heat under the meat sauce off so it wouldn’t burn or stick too badly. The water had a few tiny bubbles forming around the edges, but no real sign of an impending boil. I turned the heat up again.

Twenty minutes after that, the water looked the same. I checked the burner—it was on high, and the flames underneath it matched that description. Jeff came in, following Alexa, who was toddling in to point at the refrigerator, her way of saying "I'm hungry; give me some food." I gave Alexa a piece of bread and told Jeff what was happening. He fiddled with the controls. He announced that the pot was cheap and was radiating heat in all directions, not just concentrating it inside like it should. We turned off the air conditioner in the kitchen, which blows the cold air directly onto the range. We waited. The water sort of simmered. Not really.

Jeff moved the pot to a different burner, after getting the new flames going nice and hot. The water seemed to heat a little more. Not much. We got tired of waiting. We put the noodles into the water anyway, assuming they would cook, just more slowly than they would if the water was boiling. We gave Alexa another piece of bread. The water started boiling. Jeff announced that the cheap pot probably didn’t have enough thermal mass to contain enough heat to boil the water on its own; the addition of the noodles gave it enough substance to heat the water. Eight minutes later, our spaghetti noodles were ready.

Total time elapsed … it think it was a little over an hour. To boil a not-very-big pot of water. *Sigh.*

On the bright side, our air freight—which has my good, heavy pots and pans—is in the country. We’re hoping it will clear customs within the next couple of weeks and will be at our house by the end of the month. Maybe then I’ll be able to boil water again.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Potpourri

There are a few things about life in Cambodia that I’d like to mention, partly just so I have a record and won’t forget them, but that aren’t necessarily related to each other and that don’t warrant individual posts. Here’s a collection of such snippets of life in Phnom Penh …

Tuk-tuks
Carefree or careless? This morning, as Alexa and I were taking a tuk-tuk back from the embassy, we stopped at an intersection. I was surprised to see a small hand reaching toward me. Having recently sat through the RSO briefing about pickpockets and petty theft, I was prepared to use my feet (my hands were busy holding Alexa) to kick aside any human body part that entered my tuk-tuk, on the assumption that it was making a grab for my bag. But this small hand didn’t actually enter the tuk-tuk. Instead, it grabbed hold of the edge beside my seat. I looked over to see a small boy, no older than nine years, sitting on his bicycle beside us. He glanced up at me and then went back to grinning at my sleeping baby. As my tuk-tuk started to move, he didn’t let go, and I realized that he’d attached himself to a free ride. For several blocks, as near as I could tell, he didn’t watch where we were going or take any precautions to protect himself from potential mishap. He simply held on, enjoyed the ride, and grinned at my baby. I’m sure there’s a lesson in this event, maybe about trust, not worrying about what you can’t control, or enjoying life’s small pleasures. But even as I enjoyed his obvious enjoyment, I couldn’t help but think … “Oh, God, please don’t let this helmetless boy come to harm because he’s too busy smiling at Alexa to protect himself!”

The top of our fence
Security and privacy. Many Americans are aware that there is a balance to be struck between security and liberty, including privacy, on a national level. Over the last ten years, we’ve sacrificed some of our freedoms and some of our privacy in the interest of making it possible for the federal government to discover and interrupt others’ nefarious plots more efficiently. Since shortly after 9/11, there’s been a debate raging about where the proper balance lies. Since coming to Cambodia, Jeff and I have had this debate strike quite a bit closer to home—literally. We knew coming in that we would have an embassy guard posted at our home 24 hours a day. I, at least, didn’t realize that the guard would not be in a guard shack outside our gate, as were the embassy guards I saw outside some residences in Cairo. No, our guards have a shack inside our gate. They and they alone have keys to the car and pedestrian gates in the barbwire-topped wall surrounding our house; even we can’t get inside those walls without them letting us in. And the guards patrol the property at all hours. At any given time, I could look out any window in my house and see the guard walking by. The assistant RSO told us, during our briefing this morning, that the guards would not look in the windows. I think he meant they’ve been told not to—at least one already has, and really, who could blame him? It’s natural human curiosity, especially with us being newcomers and therefore unknowns. Don’t get me wrong; he wasn’t standing there peering creepily in. He was making his rounds, as he should, but as he went, he spent about as much time looking in as looking out. More like a series of fleeting glances than a determined stare. But I’ve only noticed it the one time, and as I said, it’s natural human curiosity. The presence of the guards is disconcerting, something to get used to, but certainly not something to which I object, especially since seeing the statistics on recent crime and having it pointed out that, despite the fact that burglaries are common in Cambodia, they very rarely happen to embassy houses or even to our neighbors. We’re protected, and our neighbors are protected, because our guards are on watch. I’m sure it will be no time at all before it doesn’t faze me a bit to look out my window and see these men making their rounds around my house. But for now, I’m feeling a bit like a specimen under a microscope.

Clipart courtesy Microsoft
There’s what in the bathroom? This morning at the embassy, I visited the restroom. As I dried my hands, I noticed a small, clear bin attached to the wall. The bin was filled with small paper packets. Of course, I had to see what they were—you know, that whole “natural human curiosity” thing. When I did see what they were, my eyes popped. There was a bin of condoms in the ladies’ restroom at the U. S. embassy. Not even a vending machine from which they could be purchased, just a bin where they sat, free for the taking. When I mentioned it to Jeff, he explained that it’s part of an HIV/AIDS prevention campaign. The disease is prevalent here, so anything that raises awareness of it or that helps prevent its spread is considered to be generally a good idea. I guess it’s an inexpensive enough way to help our employees stay healthy. It’s just another one of those things that makes sense once it’s explained, but that is shocking to my conservative sensibilities until it’s explained.

Rain in our courtyard
Rain, rain, and more rain. On our first day here, we saw more rain than we saw in our three years in Cairo. We’re right at the end of the rainy season, during which I understand it rains for a few hours every day. Since we’ve been here, we’ve had one good shower every day, and most days, it’s been a solid thunderstorm. Even when it isn’t a thunderstorm, when I say “one good shower,” I mean a heavy rain, not a drizzle or light rain. It’s thundering and raining hard now. This morning, it was sunny. It’s been sunny every morning we’ve been here. But every afternoon, usually in the late afternoon, it suddenly clouds over and the skies open. So far it’s only affected us in that we chose to stay home rather than go back out late Monday afternoon because we assumed it would start raining soon (it did, within the hour), so I still don’t have a SIM card to make my mobile phone work, and when I realized that night that I needed to go down to the corner market for milk, I walked at a fast clip instead of a slow stroll, as fat drops of rain foreshadowed the deluge that arrived just a few minutes after I got back home. My understanding is that it will continue to be very humid, and it will continue to rain frequently, but it should start tapering off a little any day now, so that we don’t get the same kind of daily downpour we’ve been getting. It’s quite the change from Cairo!

They’re talking what? Again? Apparently the rainy season this year was even more rainy than usual, because there’s been massive flooding throughout parts of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. There have been deaths; I’m not sure how many, but a lot. Here in Phnom Penh, the danger is minimal, but there’s still the potential for huge problems. Flooding outside the city affects the supplies coming into the city. Contingency plans have been made for evacuation, because if the supplies can’t get in, the people who depend on those supplies need to get out. Obviously not all will leave; most wouldn’t even consider it. But American embassies are cautious with their people, and if supply becomes an issue, we’re outta here. I hope that if it comes to that, we won’t be flown all the way back to the States, but rather to some regional safe haven that isn’t affected by the flooding—probably not Bangkok, because they’d be affected too, but maybe Singapore, which is our med evac location. But this is the U. S. Department of State we’re talking about, and regulations are fairly rigid. In general, evacuations are to the United States, for a minimum of 30 days. Hopefully it won’t come to an evacuation at all—we are nearing the end of the typical rainy season, after all, and the worst of it probably is over. On a purely selfish note … we opened the year with an evacuation; I really hope we don’t close the year with another one!

Clipart courtesy Microsoft

Mmm, good. Oh, wait. I tried my first Khmer dish tonight. Chicken amok. My first thought was “Wow, this is pretty good!” As I opened my mouth to say so, the heat kicked in. I ended up guzzling water and then eating a few bites of rice instead. That strategy was successful in cooling off my overheated tongue. Luckily, I didn’t offend anyone by not eating any more—we’d ordered dinner from a pretty good restaurant that has both Khmer and western cuisine. My meal actually was fish and chips, Jeff’s was a cheeseburger, and Alexa’s (although she fell asleep before it arrived, so hers is in the fridge) was a hot dog. But since the Khmer cuisine was so inexpensive, we decided to order a dish to split and try. My one bite was enough. If only it were possible to get the first taste without the heat, I’d love it. As it is … no more anything amok for me! (Added Saturday, 15 October 2011.)

There you have it. Snippets of what I’m noticing and thinking of as I begin my life in Cambodia. I think it will be interesting to see what I’m noticing and thinking of at different points of my time here—what will change for me in six months or a year? I look forward to finding out.

Written Wednesday, 12 October 2011.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Travel Essentials for Globe-Trotting Tots


Okay, maybe not “essentials.” When it comes down to it, very little is essential. And this list is for both babies and toddlers, not just for “tots.” But it was too cumbersome to title this post “Items that Make It a Lot Easier to Haul Your Infant or Toddler Around the World,” so I fudged a little.

Recently a friend who shares my lifestyle started asking questions. She and her husband are thinking about expanding their family, and she’s wondering how to prepare for the addition of a child into their globally nomadic lifestyle. Specifically, she’s asked what gear I recommend. After taking my now-15-month-old daughter on four transatlantic journeys (two of them without my husband), one transpacific journey, and a few state-to-state flights—not to mention six months (and counting!) of living overseas with her—I have a few suggestions.

First things first: A car seat really is essential. Not just for in the car, either. You may want to save money by not buying an airline ticket for your under-two-year-old. You may have visions of Baby nestled contentedly in your arms, the two of you happily snuggling while you sleep away the 8-hour transatlantic flight, or the 11-hour transpacific one. But somehow it usually doesn’t work out that way. It’s much more comfortable—not to mention safer—for everyone if Baby is nestled snugly in his or her car seat instead of in your lap. Don’t get me wrong; take the child out of the car seat for a change of position and for some cuddling, especially on those long flights when you both get restless. But for takeoff and landing, for turbulence, for meal service, for those times when you just need a little space, do yourself a favor: buy your child a ticket and take the car seat on the plane. Just do your due diligence first—make sure the seat is FAA approved (it’ll have a sticker on it) and that it meets your airline’s requirements. For example, KLM’s maximum width requirement had me running out to buy a smaller seat before my post-evacuation journey back to Egypt, even though my larger seat is FAA approved. Avoid problems at the airport by checking with your airline and making sure your seat meets their requirements.


Car seat with Gogo attached
I know what you’re thinking: how are you going to haul that seat around the airport, especially if you’re traveling without another adult? If your child is still in one of those infant carrier-car seat combos, it’s easy—take a stroller or cart designed for your seat to snap into it. Some of the strollers are large and expensive, but also available are smaller, less expensive carts. If your child is in a convertible car seat, I recommend the Gogo Babyz Kidz Travelmate cart. I never would have made it back to Egypt after the evacuation with Alexa, her car seat, and our carryons if I hadn’t had this contraption. It’s basically a frame with two wheels and a telescoping handle. It attaches to the car seat easily and quickly. You can wheel your child through the airport as if it was a stroller, or take the child out and haul the seat behind you. Every time I’ve used it (five multiple-flight journeys now), random strangers in the airport have admired it and/or asked me about it. Flight attendants start to protest as I take it on the plane (“No strollers allowed!”), but a quick “The wheels pop off and the handle goes down; it’s just her car seat” silences the objections. I am a walking, talking, unpaid advertisement for this thing—I love it, and I recommend it to anyone who is taking a car seat through an airport, train station, or anywhere else where your car can’t go.


Wrap. Photo courtesy Amazon.com
What about transporting your child when you don’t need a car seat—when you’re on foot? Although strollers work quite well in the States, they don’t always work so well overseas, at least not in the third-world countries where we’ve lived. Where sidewalks exist, they’re often unusable for strollers—they’re riddled with potholes; random signs and other obstacles are placed right in the middle of the path; and overgrown trees
Mei tai. Photo courtesy Amazon.com
and shrubs often make them impassable on foot, much less with a stroller. Combine the poor sidewalks with unpredictable drivers, and it really isn’t safe for strollers. It’s safer, and in many cases easier, to use a baby carrier instead. Carriers allow you to attach an infant or toddler to your body, with the child’s weight distributed between your shoulders and hips rather than on your arms, so you don’t tire as quickly and you can use your hands for other things. There are different styles of carriers, including structured and unstructured options. My favorite is a wrap, because it’s the most versatile, although I’m also a fan of mei tais. You should use whatever style of carrier is most comfortable for both you and your child. If you don’t know the first thing about baby carriers or how to choose one, just do an internet search for “baby wearing.” I promise you’ll find all the information you need!

At some point while you’re out and about with your child, you’ll probably get hungry. You may even decide to go out specifically to eat. In the States, going to a restaurant with your child really isn’t that big of a
Booster seat
deal—almost every restaurant has high chairs and booster seats, even if they aren’t particularly child-oriented restaurants. Overseas, that is not always the case. Eating out often means eating with a child in your lap, and that can be both uncomfortable and embarrassing at times. I’m pretty sure one restaurant owner in Egypt purchased a high chair because of the time when Alexa, while seated in my lap, yanked on the table cloth, causing my water glass to tip over, hit an ashtray, and shatter. So what’s a parent to do when you’re eating out in a country where restaurants often don’t provide high chairs? Bring your own. Don’t worry; I’m not insane enough to suggest that you bring the high chair from your own kitchen or dining room—it’s almost certainly too difficult to transport. Instead, bring a booster seat that is designed to be strapped securely to most chairs. (I don’t recommend the ones that attach to the table; those make me nervous.) Some even fold up and zip into their own travel cases. For the sake of complete disclosure, let me admit now that I don’t actually own one of these … yet. We currently are borrowing one that doesn’t have its own travel case; we’re using it at home until our shipment arrives with our high chair. I’d never even seen a travel one until we were out at lunch a couple of days ago, and one of our companions whipped one out for her son. I decided then and there that we’ll be ordering one as soon as we get the internet set up at our house—it’ll probably be on its way before this post is even published.

Finally, every child needs a safe place to sleep, and every parent needs a safe place to deposit a child so
Mom or Dad can go to the bathroom, wash the dishes, or switch out the laundry. In the States, this function is fulfilled by a crib, playpen, or pack-and-play. Those options also work well when you live overseas, but
Baby Bjorn Travel Crib
what about when you’re vacationing, or you’ve just moved but your shipment hasn’t arrived yet? Pack-and-plays are designed for travel, so you would think that they would work well, but in my experience, they’re often heavy or bulky, even when folded for travel. That doesn’t work well when you’re flying! Our solution is the Baby Bjorn travel crib. It’s very lightweight, yet stable enough that it won’t tip over easily. It folds into its own zippered case and can be a carry-on item on many airlines, although some say it’s too big for that. I’ve sent it on one overseas flight as a separate piece of checked baggage, and it emerged unscathed; if you don’t have the baggage allowance for that, it will fit into a large suitcase with a little room left over. It’s also incredibly easy to set up and take down. It doesn’t have as much space as many pack-and-plays, so it isn’t ideal for use as a primary playpen, but it’s perfect as a short-term crib and playpen.

That’s it. That’s my list of highly recommended items for traveling and/or living abroad with a little one. With the exception of the car seat, I haven’t listed the things that are recommended for all parents—there are enough of those lists out there. These few items are the extras that are particularly relevant to expatriates. What do you think; did I miss something? If so, tell me in the comments! I’m sure my friend, and other heading-toward-parenthood expats, will be grateful.

Written Tuesday, 11 October 2011.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Supermarket


One of the most popular supermarkets for expats ... Lucky Supermarket


I miss the commissary.

Back in Egypt, one of the privileges that we “embassy people” had was access to the commissary. I admit that I allowed myself to become lazy because of the commissary. I rarely shopped for groceries on the local market. Not even fresh produce. Sure, I could get fresher produce from local vendors, but it was just so easy to buy everything at the commissary. I could get almost anything that I could get in the States, for prices that were similar to—in some cases, lower than—what I’d pay in the States. But even as I lazily shopped the easy way, I wondered … what would it be like to shop like the other expats, the ones without commissary privileges, the ones who go to multiple shops, pay high prices, make substitutions, and do without?

Now I’m learning.

And I miss the commissary.

Our sponsor took us to Lucky Supermarket today to stock up on groceries. She had done some shopping for us before we arrived, but I only requested enough food to get us through a few days. Yesterday I planned my weekly menu and made the grocery list off of it, then added on all the non-grocery items that I’d realized we needed (dish soap, anyone?). By the time I was done, it was a massive list. This afternoon, as my sponsor pulled up, I eyed her SUV and wondered, with the third row seating up, if all my planned purchases would fit.


Dish detergent
I won’t go into lots of details about the experience. Frankly, I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t go into a lot of details if I tried. The store was crowded, the shelves were packed, and I didn’t recognize half of the items. And I found only about 75% of the items on my list. Some of them probably were right in front of me as I stared uncomprehendingly at the squiggly lines (Khmer script, or in some cases maybe Japanese script) and tried to reason out from the pictures what exactly I was looking at. It took me a while to recognize the dish soap—it looked like toilet bowl cleaner. And the toilet bowl cleaner looked like … I’m not sure what, but not toilet bowl cleaner. And some of the prices really made me appreciate the COLA (cost of living adjustment—an increase in pay based on the cost of living, assuming the maintenance of a western lifestyle at post). I mean, really, two and a half dollars for a can of tuna?
Toilet cleaner

We were in there for around 90 minutes. We spent over $200. By the time we left, I knew there were items on my list that I probably could find if I made one more lap around the store. But our tiny grocery cart was full to overflowing, and Alexa alternately was throwing things out of it and throwing things into it, my mind was overwhelmed, my feet were sore, and I was done.

I will get used to this. I will learn to go to the fish market for fresh fish, the vegetable market for fresh produce, and Lucky or one of the other supermarkets for western products. I will learn to adjust my recipes to do without items that are unavailable or that are prohibitively expensive. And I will thank God and the U.S. government for my consumables shipment and for my APO privileges (hello, Amazon.com, my trusty old friend!).

But for now, I just miss the commissary.

Written Saturday, 8 October 2011.

Dish Soap


Here in Cambodia, it is very important to keep a clean house, particularly a clean kitchen. I know, it’s important everywhere, but in my mind, it’s beyond important here. It’s essential. The reason? Bugs. Apparently big, nasty bugs are everywhere here, and they love to invade homes. As do tiny ants that can fit through the smallest hole in your “air- and bug-tight” containers. Apparently the only way to keep the little monsters away is to be hyper vigilant about crumbs and cleanliness, to go above and beyond when storing food in airtight containers, and to be prepared with a veritable army of bug-zapping, ant-trapping, roach-killing products.

Just to let you know, I despise bugs of all types and of all sizes. A spider will send me calling for Jeff to come kill it. Ants in the house will have me reaching immediately for the deadliest chemicals I can find. A roach will send me scurrying away, to return to the room only with immense trepidation after turning all the lights on and leaving them on for several seconds, preferably with Jeff in tow to destroy the ugly monster. Yes, I do realize how hysterical it must be that someone like me is living here.

I say all this so that you will understand the horror with which I realized, after dinner on our first night here, that I had neglected to request that our sponsor stock our new home with dish soap. How was I to banish every hint of food from the oh-so-sensitive nostrils of my enemy if I didn’t have the proper tools? There was only one thing to do. I rinsed the dishes thoroughly, scrubbed them with a wet washcloth to remove every visible sign of use, stacked them in the sink, and made plans to do whatever it took to buy dish soap the next day.

Accordingly, the next day, I took Alexa in my arms, put my six U. S. dollars in my pocket (we’d forgotten to bring more cash, and I have no idea where an ATM is in the neighborhood, so that was all I had until Jeff got home from the embassy), and walked down to the corner market. I perused the few aisles and their meager offerings. Milk, diapers, laundry detergent, beer, and ah, there! Dish soap. But that’s no good; that’s for use in a dishwasher, and our house doesn’t have a dishwasher. (Most houses here don’t.) Try again. Nope, no wash-by-hand dish soap. Time to ask for help.

I approached the Cambodian lady who had greeted me as I walked in the door. “Do you have any dish soap? Not for use with a machine, but to wash by hand?”

“Soap? To wash by hand? No machine?”

I nodded.

“Here. This by hand, this by hand, this by hand. This and this by machine.”

I looked in surprise at the items she indicated. I’d thought that all of the merchandise in that section was for washing clothes. Then I noticed a box of Cascade dishwasher detergent on the shelf above where she’d pointed. Reassured, I took her word for what was what. The bags of detergent (whoever heard of powdered wash-by-hand dish soap?) were on the bottom shelf and therefore difficult to see, labeled in Khmer script and therefore impossible to read, and Alexa was getting away from me trying to grab everything in sight, so I didn't have time to verify. I quickly picked up a bag that was marked $5.15 and headed to the cash register.

Once we arrived home, I gleefully headed to the kitchen to make use of my new purchase. I was hoping that I’d find some picture instructions—or better yet, English—on the packaging to let me know how much powder I was supposed to use for a sink full of water. As I examined the bag, I noticed that one of the pictures showed a bucket of sudsy water with a white shirt next to it. Hmm … maybe the dish soap was mixed with the laundry detergent because it was meant to be dual purpose? I examined the package more carefully. Not a picture of a dish anywhere. Then, I saw it, in tiny letters underneath the Khmer script: “Standard Detergent Formula for Hand Wash.” With a nice big picture of a shiny white shirt. This was not meant for dishes. Apparently the woman at the shop had not heard the word “dish” in my question.

But I’m adaptable. I needed to wash the dishes. They couldn’t wait any longer, not if I was to avoid the nasty little things that lay in wait. So I decided to give it a try. Yes, I washed my dishes in laundry detergent. Then I had a nice glass of water in one of my newly washed glasses just to make sure—and no, there was no hint of detergent taste.

Still, I left “dish soap” nice and large on the top of my shopping list for my trip to the supermarket the next day.

Written Saturday, 8 October 2011.