We are overrun by Peace Corps!
The peace and tranquillity of the Mekong Hotel have been disrupted by a group of Peace Corps who descended on us yesterday (Saturday 18th). They have been in Cambodia for two months, but have spent most of that time on language training – so their language outshines ours quite a bit. They have also spent some time in a village, getting to know life and culture. As ever, the Americans do things bigger and better. They have better bikes, there are more of them, they speak louder, they have bigger computers, they have been put up in air con rooms with a river view (VSO puts us up in non-air con rooms facing the back lot!) …. and I’m blaming them for the fact that I cannot get on to the internet in the hotel any more as so many of them are skyping people all over the States. Our morning is evening on the west coast, I guess. One thing we have over them, however, is that they are not as well qualified………. most of them are fresh from College. I may also have ‘more insurance.’ I console myself with that.
This is the second time in the past few days that I have experienced that feeling of ‘poor relation’. The previous time was when I went to Phnom Penh to get my jags and afterwards went back to the VSO accommodation to bathe before eating. There were a couple of people in the VSO accommodation from Bantea Meanchy? (not sure of spelling – near Thailand) where they are working in health. We were chatting as you do and it turned out they were in town because it was the 30th birthday of another (Dutch) volunteer who is also working in health near them. I assumed this was a volunteer-type event, with no great formality and people at various points on the ‘scruff’ continuum. However it turned out that this young Dutch woman and her volunteer partner were in the middle of a five-star touring holiday, paid for by her parents, and there were only about four other people there!! I didn’t ask, but they didn’t warn me either! Leonie was dressed in a beautiful new dress (birthday present), her partner was super smooth and the parents were dressed as for a Western function. Needless to say the place we were eating was near the top of the Phonm Penh restaurant guide…. I had changed into a clean t-shirt, but felt slightly underdressed to say the least. In fairness, I would have stayed if they had been people I was going to working with / seeing again, but it turned out that not only are they all in health in a different province, but they are all at the end of their tour of duty. In the circumstances, I made some polite conversation and then left!
Such social ‘faux pas’ are an essential part of the life of a volunteer. You scrub along at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the various social settings in which you find yourself:
* at work, you arrive fresh, knowing nobody and understanding the culture of the organisation even less
* shopping or walking about, you look like a rich Westerner, but you are on a volunteer allowance
* dressing, you dress like a tourist / backpacker because you could fit little else in your case, but you are expected to work as a professional
* travelling – you have a clapped out /several times repaired VSO bicycle – in PP traffic, this is tantamount to advertising yourself as the lowest form of life on the roads and inviting all lorries/buses/ motorbikes/tuktuks/cars/ Lexus 4x4s….(I could go on) .. to run you over, or at the very least push you off the road with not even a contemptuous backward glance
* speaking – you can just about ask someone #how much#, but after your poor efforts at Khmer are recognised you are incapable of understanding the rapid fire of glottaly stopped consonants and dipthonged vowels with which you are answered, even less the raucous but good natured laughter which sometimes greets your efforts… did you perhaps want to say one word, but end up mispronouncing it so that you actually said a different word??