Saturday, November 7, 2009

Meals and Auspicious Ants

It's been some time since I said I was going to "catch-up" on some things we did while in Cambodia. I forgot that when the "mom" leaves for 10 days, it takes an equal amount of time to catch up on those 10 days when you return. Especially when the return is also impacted by a huge national holiday that requires costume making!

One of the grand things about traveling to SE Asia is the food. I have mentioned it before and will mention it again. I believe that just going there to eat for a few weeks without seeing any historic monuments, or water festivals or riding in tuk-tuks would not be a poor use of days. Yup. Just eating breakfast and then sitting around until lunch and then taking a nap before dinner. Heaven.

The ace thing about this last trip to Cambodia was not only that we got to eat some delectable and scrumptious vittles - but that two of those unbelievable delicious meals were served in the homes of local Cambodians. A treat beyond compare. Street food = wonderful. Restaurant food = wonderful. Home-cooking = phenomenal!!

We had lunch with an ex-neighbor (Thyda) of one of my traveling companions. She and her partner had lived there for 9 months in 2008 (I think). We were treated to a meal that had been made by Tyda's mother before she left for work that morning. In reality, I suspect that Thyda's mother worked on that meal for several days beforehand. It's humbling the amount of work that she put in to make us a truly fabulous feast. What's more bewildering is that all of this cooking is accomplished without the benefit of a range top. Or a stove. Or any of the modern conveniences that I couldn't make a cup-o-noodle without. From what I could tell, all of this is painstakingly accomplished using a single gas burner. Gobsmacked, eh?

I was also treated to a fresh coconut, complete with bendy-straw, to drink. At first, I was kind of panicked. Heretofore, I have always hated coconut milk directly from the coconut. Honestly, I tried my first and last one in 1996 in Saigon. It was blazing hot out and I kept seeing these coconut vendors with their fresh coconuts resting on large blocks of ice - leading me to believe that the inside milk would be cool, crisp and refreshing. Not. Coconuts resting on a bed of ice do not, in my experience, suck up any of the cold that is emanating from the block of ice. Instead of cold, crisp and refreshing - I got slimy, warm and thick saliva-like ooze. Thought I was going to puke on the street in front of the closest cyclo driver. Based on this, I wondered how I was going to get past not drinking the coconut and, in turn, insulting our host. As luck would have it - I took a tiny sip and - skies parted and angles sang - the innards were cold! Cold made it not so slimy. Not so slimy made it palatable. Palatable made me not rude. Thank goodness.

Where you see the table all set for us above, that space is usually where the family parks their pride and joy. A spotlessly clean sedan. (If I were a more observant person, or some one who actually knows any thing about cars, I would be able to tell you the make of the car. We saw the car parked in there on our first visit - when we were graciously invited for dinner a few days hence - but the only things I remember were that it was spotless, that it was in the "living room" and that it was beige). We were very honored to take our meal out in the main room. Especially since it is very difficult for the father to either drive it to work or to find another parking place for the car. A wonderful family to do so much for our little lunch.

My second home-cooked meal was at the family home of our Program Manager Sokeum "Ken". His wife is categorically one of the best cooks I have encountered. The whole meal was superb - end to end - - start to finish. The cook did not join us at the table. Neither did "Ken" or three of his four daughters. The oldest daughter was selected to eat with us. The rest of the family sat on a bench parallel to the table and watched us eat. They ate when we were finished - but not at the table. It seemed to give them immense pleasure watching us enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Earlier in the day, while we were driving through rice fields. My travel companion, and fellow board member for Camtom, idly mentioned in passing that one of the most exciting things to see at Ken's house was his ant hill. She mentioned that it was large and was worth seeing. I thought, "OK. An Ant Hill." Immediately after dinner, Elizabeth suggested that we all take a look at the ant hill. As it was already starting to get dark, I thought it make the most sense to see it then - since it would be impossible to see it well without light. But still I thought, "OK. An Ant Hill." Whatever.
Turns out, I should have been a little less skeptical of seeing the ant hill. Turns out I was kind of wrong about how special and unique this particular ant hill was going to be. As we followed "Ken" through the living room - we walked right past the front door. I thought we were going out a side door - but instead we walked right in to a room designed specifically for - you guessed it - - the INDOOR GINORMOUS ant hill.
Apparently, if you have an ant hill on your property it is VERY auspicious. It is such lucky fortune that if, say, an ant hill starts to erupt in your car port - this is not the time to grab your spray can of insecticide. Nope, this is the time to head out to the local "shrine-supply-store" and get some candles, plastic flowers and bowls for offerings of food. And, should you decide to build a larger residence - a residence that will usurp the space where the car port used to be - it makes perfect sense to have the house built around the propitious mound seething with live insects = now turned shrine. Best if it has it's own auspicious room so that nothing can get in the way of it bringing you good fortune.

I'm wondering if an ant farm - you know the kind you can buy from kids-do-science places - would also be auspicious? Maybe we should just forgo the laundry room we are planning and see if we can't convince some ants to start construction there. (Oh and in case you were curious - - yes - I did sneak a little poke of the finger to see how solid that thing was. Lucky for me it was pretty cement like - those ants have got some sticky spit to mix in with that dirt. It would have been very INauspicious for me to have knocked the whole things down!)

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