I wake up to the sound of our local handyman sawing ice. It’s a slow sounding push, the rhythm, soft, the ice surrendering to Jahb’s saw. His saw appears rusty, prehistoric, with fine-long-sharp teeth. Sometimes he runs the ice through a “shaved ice” machine that was once red, it sounds old and temperamental, but he never crushes ice in the early morning.
So, mornings are generally quiet.
These days I get up early, and once a week I’m fumbling in the dark before the sun rises. I ride my bicycle to work. It’s not far, but I’m still waiting for my legs to adjust to bicycling on Siem Reap’s hard-packed gravel roads. Even at 5.45, the streets have woken up with dogs doing their business and shopkeepers sweeping.
My legs, specifically my quads, are wondering why I am doing this, wishing for a paved, smooth surface to glide over effortlessly. There is no comfort in knowing what fantastic legs I’ll get from all this work either as I already have fabulous legs. I have learned, however, which of my teacher dresses ride up my thighs and which ones behave. Sometimes it’s a battle of bicycling and forcing my hemline down.
Generally though, riding down the streets of Siem Reap is an exercise in paying attention, exclamation point. What appears to be a two lane road is essentially a four or five lane road because there is always a line of traffic that runs the opposite direction. The fifth lane is for the cars and motorbikes and cyclists that cut through. I used to get angry at the line of traffic that drove at me, forcing me out onto the traffic flow that was behind me, but now I accept that this is the way things are.
It’s a delicate balance of keeping straight and learning that all types of vehicles zip by uncomfortably close to you. It’s also about driving around dogs, construction projects and vehicles horizontal to the road. Its dump trucks, buses, tuk tuks, motos, school kids on bicycles, trash, puddles, mud, ice trucks, oversized vehicles teetering with plants, recyclables and coconuts. It’s purely blind-faith, becoming patient, and keeping focused.
And as a result, many of us move lethargically, cautiously, deliberately.
At work I get to enjoy the fresh cool A/C. I’m greeted by a set of steep stairs, students, staff and a desk I can call my own. I’m sure it is the least coveted one, situated in the middle of the teachers’ room, with my back turned next to the row of computers, but I rather like it. I can enjoy the window views without being mesmerized by it. I can see the front door. I can ignore everyone or I can engage with my coworkers.
The reputable language school has modern facilities, a backup generator for when the power goes out (which is regularly) and a lot of expat and Cambodian teachers. It is several floors high, with a restaurant at the top that I frequent. The European owner has had a fascinating life at sea and offers breakfast, lunch, drinks and dessert. He jokingly claimed I was his best customer. I like to eat. I can eat a lot. I like his food and it’s really nice to have a good place to eat where I work.
I’m one of the few Americans that work there. And since the books we use are British and the recordings we play are British, and the teachers around my desk are British, I feel like it won’t be long before I don my horrible English accent in every day conversations. Living abroad as already expanded my British vocabulary, scope of friends, so mastery of the English accent is in my future. Ha!
Although, it has taken me longer than I expected to get my teaching legs underneath me, to establish connections with the students and understand the paradigm of the school. It’s a lot of little tasks, protocol and coordinating with Cambodian teachers who I share my classes with. It’s catch-up because I started in the middle of the term. Some (all?) of my classes had 3 teachers before me, so discipline felt like herding fussy kittens under the weight of exhaustion.
I’ve eaten everything on the menu. The cheese and chutney sandwich is quite nice.
The thing about teaching is it involves a lot of work. There are moments when you can glide, when it doesn’t feel like you are hitting the breaks or pushing the pedal to the floor, but often, it seems, you’re learning, tweaking, leaning, and fine-tuning your lesson plans and your interactions with the students.
I once wrote that becoming a teacher is like becoming a new person. Teaching forces you to be better for your students, not unlike being a parent. You can’t be lazy, even when you desperately want to be lazy, because laziness is contagious and defeats the purpose of learning. And you’re a role model whether you acknowledge it or not. So, if you’re really into self-development, have I got the perfect job for you!
Thankfully, my previous teaching experience and built-in tenacity has gotten me through the worst of it. At least, I hope the worst of it is behind me. I can feel the connections with my students growing. I know there are more hurdles in this race, but I know I have the endurance. Did you know one teacher quit in the middle of the day! Can you imagine? Of course you can. We’ve all wanted to do that before!
I ride my bike back home for a break. Often, I take a 15-30 minute nap. I’ve become a fan of naps. I’m told naps are good for you.
Jahb is usually at the apartment, making his crushed ice, sawing his ice, delivering his ice across the street or preparing his ice for a waiting customer. His name means “bird,” and we buy our water from him. We say hello whenever we come and go from the apartment. The b/f speaks enough Khmer to have short pleasant exchanges with him. And Jahb loves it.
He’s of the older generation, the ones who were affected by the Khmer Rouge.
This is my new life, at the moment.