In the week our GROW team has been in Cambodia, we’ve already established a few typical haunts. We have “our lunch spot” a few minutes from the office where we can get lunch for $1. We have the few market stalls where we like to buy fruit. We also are now well known in the Arunras hotel – in Yunthy’s words “the restaurant for foreigners” on the corner of the street we live on. At first, his description of the spacious restaurant, situated beneath a hotel of the same name, made me want to avoid it like the plague. We weren’t here to be the typical foreigners, we were here on GROW for goodness sakes! I wanted the real authentic experience! I wanted to get to know locals, eat street food, and get off the beaten path. In the end, we succumbed to the temptation of free wifi and entered the sacrilegious eatery. I was prepared to be properly snooty about all the ignorant foreigners there. Man, was I wrong.
This is our fourth day in a row eating at Arunras restaurant, and so far we are Facebook friends with three of the waitstaff. Yesterday they gave us complimentary rice balls for dessert. Today the free oolong tea has flowed. As I’ve been writing this, a conversation with our waiter (Phea Rin…we’re besties) produced a pool open for swimming only 200 meters from the restaurant! A hidden gem! Arunras has proven to be the opposite of everything I feared it would be. We’ve gotten to know the locals working on the waitstaff so well that we now greet them by name upon entering, and if you go for the cheap food on the menu instead of the expensive western imitation dishes, you can get great food for $1.50 – $2 of the same nature you’d get at a food cart down the street. I’m so glad we gave Arunras a shot, but more than that, I’m glad we didn’t just come in, sit down, and block out the world. We engaged with the staff, and they engaged with us. Getting to know the people here has been extremely rewarding, the food is great and reasonably priced, and getting free wifi outside the COWS office is a blessing. Just now, Marrisa ordered a strawberry-banana smoothie (a rare luxury found only at Arunras). Our waiter returned a moment later looking very apologetic. “Sister, we are out of strawberries. Sorry!” Of course, Marrisa had not problem with a bananas-only smoothie, and we commented for what seemed like the hundredth time on how nice our new friends have been.
From our tuk tuk drivers to our landlady, the people of Cambodia have more than lived up to their reputation as welcoming, polite, and accomodating. The house we are renting is actually just one floor of a larger house – the family lives on the first floor. Nirri is the grandmother and boss lady of the house, and Bi Chen is the little boy who taught us how to do laundry without a washing machine (yes, a 5 year old taught me how to do laundry, it was humbling). Nirri has gone out of her way to make us feel comfortable and welcome. She listened patiently to our horrified story of the spider the next after, and was appropriately sorrowful that we had to deal with it. She lent us a drying rack and dishes, gave us a container for our laundry soap, and brought us papaya and dragon fruit one morning. Not to mention that she doesn’t laugh every morning when Jackie, Alicia, Theresa, and I do Insanity workouts in her driveway. We couldn’t have asked for a better grandmother to watch over us during our time here.
Our first field visit today came with it’s own challenges to be sure, and I’m learning a lot from the COWS staff about the challenges these types of meetings, projects, and efforts bring. When it comes to the attitude of the people toward us, though, there was little room for improvement. On this crazy roller coaster that my first trip to Cambodia has been, that has been the one constant: the people want us here. They’re open and sweet and polite almost without exception. At first, I was hesitant smiling at people, but once you start, you feel silly for ever worrying. It’s as if people here are just waiting for a signal that their good nature will be well received, and once you open that door with your own smile, they waltz right in and make themselves at home. All smiles and waves, especially the children.
Last night we walked to the rice fields with Yunthy and Chak, both staff members at COWS. We had beers, took silly pictures, and watched the sunset. We had our first adventures with doing laundry. I’ve discovered how much dirt you actually accumulate in curly hair on an hour long tuktuk ride. We met Signon’s wife and children, and we’re preparing a song to sing at next week’s church service. There have been many ups and downs so far, but the friendliness of the people has never changed. They don’t fawn over us, but it’s clear they want us to feel welcome. That has been my impression at least, and I’m so grateful for it.
PS: it finally looks like it’s going to rain. thank the Lord.