Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Continually Changing Flavors of Dtuck Au Luk

Dtuk. Au Luk. In literal translation, these two words put together mean “water, watermelon.” In daily practice, they refer to a kind of fruit shake. In terms of how this substance translates onto the smooth surface of your tongue, it comes out roughly as “a sweet, cold, and delicious blended beverage that is highly addictive to one Adrian Stover on days that are very hot (every day).”

The words “fruit shake” do not have any meaning for Dalis. I have taught her and her class of thirty seven students of 12A for the past two years, but she cannot speak English to save her life. This is my failure. It is her triumph. But I forgive her because her family’s sweets stand supplies me with dtuk au luk on a daily basis, and because her mother has a peculiar sense of humor that makes me laugh. Ming (Aunt), as I refer to her, runs the stand. She operates the blender, which sits behind the glass case of display fruit and the various bottles of ingredients. She knows my usual order for the fruit shake: “Please no sugar, please no duck egg.” When she hands me a glass of thick, pink liquid she tells me “Adrian sum lup bee maong, at?” It means, “This glass of dtuk au luk is so delicious it will make Adrian be unconscious for two hours, yes?”

The joke has a better delivery in Khmer, more of a punch.

Dtuk au luk does not have the same flavor every day. Some days you can taste the carrot, others the Asian pear. They mix it mostly with durian in Stung Treng, and coconut is the chief ingredient in Anlong Veng. Phnom Penh and the surrounding provinces of Kampong Chnnang and Kampong Speu have a mostly apple flavor to their dtuk au luk, and the ones in Sisophon stay true to their name by having watermelon as their chief ingredient.

But the best ones are, of course, the ones that make me unconscious.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Peddling Guppies

The rains come every day now. Water comes thundering down from the heavens, and I can finally sleep at night without waking up covered in sweat. More standing water also means more mosquitoes, and more mosquitoes means a roaring trade in the guppy business.

In my non-teaching hours at school, I usually find a quiet desk where I can work on something for a few hours without having to move my mouth or arms; thus, relaxing the muscles exhausted by the classroom. However, I look up from my desk every so often and find a crowd of little boys staring at me from an open window. All of them clutch empty plastic water bottles. They find them from the big rubbish bins in front of the teacher's dormitory, and they know I like to use them to transport guppies. It usually takes them a little bit of courage to ask for what they have come to buy. I am a big, scary, pink-white, Khmer speaking foreigner after all (Babies are worse. Since they cannot process complex thought, they take one look at me and start screaming in fright). "Loo-at trei?" one of the boys asks.

"Bat bat...loo-at trei."

The school year is ending, and most of my work is done and over with except for this one project. Every day that I am here, I seem to sell more and more guppies. Most of my afternoons are spent fishing them out with nets from the water containers. Afterwards, I hand to my customers pamphlets with information in Khmer on how to take care of their new pets and how they keep people safe from dengue fever.

Everyone wants to buy the pretty looking male guppies with the big colorful tails, but I try to persuade them that they should buy the dull grey females as well if they want to produce guppy fry of their own. This is followed by the embarrassing question that only a seven-year-old boy would ask. "Why do you need male and female guppies to have baby guppies?"

"Ask you parents."

I was afraid that the project would end in ruin, and in my consternation I started peddling my magic fish in the market when I went for supplies in the morning. I sold them off in the same plastic water bottles, touting their wondrous abilities in controlling disease as I walked among the stalls under the tin roof. My usual money changer and vegetable lady bought bottles of fish, but my tailor did not. This is so even after the good money I paid him to make me some pants!

Since then things have been on the upswing for the business, and I no longer have to peddle the guppies on bicycle anymore. I am on track to selling close to 200 fish this month. Can you imagine it? 200 fish for 100 riel a piece will mean 20,000 riel ($5) in guppy sales! I keep the money in a locked desk at the school in an effort to demonstrate the concept of transparency, and declare to all who ask me about it that the profits from the farm will go towards fish food.

Vannak keeps saying that I have become a rich man selling fish. He likes to poke fun at everything I do, but Vannak should take notes from everything that I am doing because he is going to take over the business when I am gone.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Going Back

I suppose this had to come at some point. In a short few months, I will pack my Cambodian life into a few small bags and begin the journey back towards (what I have recently started calling) “The Great American Adventure.” The plane tickets have been bought, COS conference is done and over with, and the paperwork is slowly beginning to diminish in size. I have listened to countless horror stories about what it is like to return to America after living abroad for so long, but I am confident in my abilities to adapt to strange and different places.

There remain only a few projects to wrap up, and I feel that I am busier than usual trying to finish all of the little side projects that I started. On top of this, not a day goes by when someone around here anxiously asks when I have to go back to America, and whether or not I will miss Cambodia when I go over to the other side of the world. In fact, there are lists of lists of things that I will miss and things that I will not. These grow bigger as the days go by. Just yesterday afternoon I added yet another episode of something I will miss when I am back in the “world.” I was out taking a walk in the remaining drops of the monsoon rains. My usual route goes past the house of one of my students, as well as the sweet stand that she and her mother manage. When I walked past the latter, her mother called me over to say hello. We chatted for a bit, and she commented on how silly my Vietnamese hat looked that I was using to shield my head from the rain. I would have bought my usual dtuck au luck from her, but I apologized to her for not bringing out my wallet into the rain. She said it was no matter, and gave me a glass of iced tea anyway. Her daughter came over and we commented on how the rain was badly needed, and that it was wonderful to finally see the fields burst into green. And as I sat there sipping my tea, I thought for a moment about how I will miss all of this; being invited out of the rain for tea, wearing silly Vietnamese hats, and talking about the status of the monsoon rains. Then again I will not miss the constant bickering with tuk tuk drivers, the heat, the mosquitoes, the periodic bouts of stomach illnesses, the really aggressive prostitutes, and the bureaucracy of both the American and Cambodian governments.

It will definitely be a mixed bag of feelings when I do actually leave.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"No, really. I'm Khmer!"

Sunday afternoon I was speeding down the highway in a motorized tin can on wheels from Kampot province. We were going into the heart of the country; it was heading back from the beaches at Koh Tonsai (Rabbit Island) where I had passed the weekend before this week's routine checkup with the Phnom Penh doctors. The woman who organized the cab barked orders to the driver and haggled with passengers to give her more money. I paid the foreigner price, even though I wanted the local price. This was so even though I called her ming (Aunt), and claimed that I was a poor teacher. In the end we had our fun. She asked me where I was from and why I spoke her language.


"No, what country are you from?"

"I am from the country of Cambodia."

"I don't believe you!"

"Why not?"

"Because you have white skin and your hair is yellow."

"So? Haven't you heard of the lost tribe of white skinned Khmers?"


"Many years ago, among the hill tribes of Rattanakiri province there was a tribe of white skinned Khmers who spoke their own language and had their own customs. But they disappeared into the forest because they feared the other tribes, and have only now come out of hiding. My family belongs to the tribe of white skinned Khmers, and I grew up learning Khmer as a second language. That is why I speak it so well."

Ming laughed and rolled her eyes. "That's the biggest lie I have ever heard."

"It's true! Ask an old man about the white skinned Khmers! They will know. "

"I still don't believe you."

Ming repeated this story to whoever got in the can and pressed the mass of people inside closer and closer together. They laughed as well, and in the end we had our fun. But I still had to pay the foreigner price.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Dog Days of May

I walked into Vannak’s office at eight in the morning. The sun had risen several hours ago, but it was already letting its presence be known to all. Vannak was sitting in front of his computer near the window with his shirt off and one hand clutching a yellow paper fan. Standards were down that day. Sambok had taken off both his shirt and his pants and was sleeping on top of his desk under the air current of his personal ceiling fan. Sini kept an eye on the door to make sure a student did not walk in and disturb the sleeping beauty. If someone wanted entry, he simply told them that the door was locked.

Such was the day. Who wanted to stay in an overheated classroom and sweat raindrops through your shirt when shade, fan, and cold drink were to be had nearby? The students complained, although you had to ask them to say it. I felt faint after a perfunctory grammar exercise. SaimNou decided let the herd go fifteen minutes early and little old me did not have any objections.

Vannak’s office had a big fan. That’s why everyone who could go in there did. It was a long room with concrete walls on either side, and two large windows at the back overlooking the fish pond and the fields. A red nylon hammock was tied to the door, and a woman in a long sampot sat there most of the morning swinging her baby back and forth. I did not know her name or the name of her child, but I knew that she was in charge in the library. She hardly went in there, and when she did it was to fetch the blue bucket in order to wash her baby. The blue bucket was something I bought in Pourk to collect fish in. I wonder if she knew that. Anyone coming in or out of that office almost tripped on that baby.

Vannak saw me come in, but I have known the presence of the baby long enough that I do not over him. Sitting down at a desk next to his, I pulled out a notebook and began writing some comments on the class I had just taught. After a few moments I remembered the phrase that I had recently learned how to say in his language. “Vannak?”

“I am here.”

“I am melting like a piece of ice.” Some moment of thought followed.

“You are not a piece of ice. A piece of ice is different.”

“It’s a joke Vannak, it’s because its 41° already today.”

“What does 41° mean?” Sigh.

“It means that it is very hot.”

“Yes, very hot today.”

Slowly I spun in my revolving chair and looked out the window. Beyond the fish pond, the brown fields and dusty palm trees shimmered in dull tempered light. The green water in the fish pond reminded me of a disused swimming pool. I looked at my shirt and saw that it was still dark with sweat from that morning’s class.



“I want to go swimming. It may be the only way to cool off.”

“You should jump in the fish pond.”

“Ew...Vannak! That water is warm, dirty, and full of fish.”

“No, it’s very healthy!” Vannak had not turned his head towards me, and I imagine that his eyes were still glued on the computer screen. But I am sure that that incredible smile was there even though I could not see it. It spread from cheek to cheek, erasing the usually serious look that he wore. I could sense him wearing a grin while he told me that I should jump in a fish pond.

SreiToit came into the office holding a piece of paper. Her name literally means “little woman,” which would have been ill fitting if she had risen to a taller stature. She was the only student who passed the 12th grade national exams last March, and I’ve made it a point to call her the smartest student in Angkor Chum. It is true, though. There is no denying it. The results of the exams were posted on the announcement board of the school for everyone to see who failed and who passed.



“Don’t you think that Adrian should jump into the fish pond if he feels that he is too hot?” SreiToit laughed. She was not going to be on my side on this one.

“SreiToit, don’t you think that water is dirty and full of fish? Would swim in it?”

“I don’t know.” SreiToit lowered her head and handed Vannak a piece of paper with both hands full of numbers. Vannak studied it carefully.

“Vannak,” I said his name for emphasis, “Would you swim in that water?”

“Busy,” was all that he said. SreiToit laughed, and I went back to whatever it was that I was writing about. Vannak chatted with her for a little while before she left. I resumed talking.

“I would also love a giant bowl of ice cream right now.”

“You can get that at the sweets stand.”

“It’s not the same thing. Hot, sticky, sweet pudding over crushed ice is not the same thing as ice cream.”

“How is it different?”

“It tastes better.”

“I don’t believe you. You say that you want to jump in a pool, but you won’t jump into a fish pond. “You say that you want ice cream, but you won’t eat bong aime. You are very strange.”
“There are just some things that I cannot get over. I have my habits, what can I say?”

“What do say?”

“Oh, nothing. Never mind.”

“Very strange.”