Thursday, March 27, 2014

Beijing: Round Two!

It's official, folks! Signed, sealed, delivered! I've put my name on the dotted line. Let the adventure continue! I'm officially coming back for my second year as a teacher in Beijing for the 2014-2015 school year. Despite the smog and the long term effects it's probably having on my poor lungs and body, the students and the experiences I've been having far surpass that downfall. I'm excited, hopeful, and looking forward to the adventures that are to come!

PS - Home in 102 days for summer vacation! 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Southeast Asia Vacation - CAMBODIA

After taking the quickest flight ever to Phnom Penh, Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (we were literally in the air for less than 30 minutes), the next leg of our adventure was about to begin. Prior to leaving for this Southeast Asia Vacation, Cambodia was probably the place I was least knowledgeable about and that I probably had the fewest expectations for. I knew that in visiting Cambodia that there was no way I could be disappointed in the place or the experience because I really had no idea what to expect or really what the country would have in store for us. I was excited and hopeful. 

Once we got off the plane and found ourselves a tuk tuk willing to take three girls and three REALLY big backpacks to our hostel, we took our first ride through the streets of Phnom Penh and it was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Dusty, run down, poverty stricken. At the same time, the place was buzzing with people going about their day-to-day lives. It was an interesting culture to watch. 

After arriving at our hostel called "The Mad Monkey," we met up with Erin's best friend Kathryn who would be joining us on the next two weeks of our vacation. We laid low for the first night in Phnom Penh. We found a sushi place to have supper at and spent our evening catching up with Kathryn. That night, we wandered up to the rooftop bar at our hostel to have some drinks and meet some other backpackers. I ended up speaking with a group who were from Ireland, Australia, and Germany. We were quite an eclectic group of people. It was a fun night with lots of cheap beer ($1 beer people! Doesn't get much better than that!) 

We spent our first full day in Phnom Penh shopping, walking around the city, and taking in the sights and sounds. After breakfast, we made our way to the Russian Market. The Russian Market is a building for bargain shopping. When I asked locals and other travelers why it was called the Russian Market, the best answer I got was that it was a market where the Russians went shopping. No fancy, extravagant story here, folks! Just exactly what it sounds like. You could find just about anything at this market - clothes, shoes, jewelry, trinkets, food, crafts, etc. After shopping, we had lunch along the waterfront then explored the streets surrounding the Royal Palace. We didn't actually go inside as it was about to close when we arrived, but we got some great pictures of the place from outside the gates (and after battling some massive swarms of pigeons and seagulls. Like nothing I've seen before - and I'm from the Maritimes!) That night, we stayed in at the hostel and met some other great backpackers - Baz and Chloe, both from the UK. 

The next day was probably the heaviest day we had on our vacation, but totally necessary in understanding the history and culture of Cambodia. We left bright and early from our hostel to go to the Killing Fields - a fielded area in Phnom Penh that was used to kill innocent people during the genocide between 1975 and 1979. The country was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Pol Pot called for the execution of innocent people who posed a threat to the ideology and his rule. Some people were killed solely because they were wearing glasses, had a university degree, or because they were a woman. It was devastating and heart wrenching to hear stories of survivors of the genocide and their experiences with the killings of their families and loved ones, people who were directly affected by the murderous ways of the Khmer Rouge. However, seeing the fields for myself and knowing that I was standing on grounds where people were ripped of their freedoms and lives, who were lost and alone in the last moments of their lives brought feelings I can't explain to the forefront. After the Killing Fields, we went to the S21 Museum back in the city to further our understanding of the genocide. I don't have many pictures from the Killing Fields, but I'll only post these two out of respect. I would be happy to share my experiences with those of you interested when I come back to Canada this summer, but it was definitely hard to see and hard to hear about it, but I'm so glad that I took the time to do so while in Phnom Penh.  

Shallow graves at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 
A Spirit House at the Killing Fields where people left bracelets and other tokens 
in memory of the people who lost their lives during the genocide.

Traveling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus proved to be an interesting, frustrating, and tiring experience. We left Phnom Penh at 1pm and after an hour of driving, we had made it maybe 5-10km. The traffic was like nothing I've seen before. At a complete stand still. And as is always driving in Asia, people tried to cut around other cars by driving on the side of the road, along the grass, and scooters and motorbikes tried to squeeze between cars and trucks. It was awful, and to make matters worse, out of no where the "air conditioning" (I use that term lightly because it was a fan blowing warm air from outside into the inside the bus) broke. So, our bus pulled over and there we sat in the heat and dust for about 2 hours while we waited for our bus to get fixed. It was comical, and yes life could be much worse, but it had it's frustrating moments too. In the end, it took us 12 hours to get to Siem Reap when it should have taken 6. And I have never been so glad to get to a bed, any bed! 

Siem Reap was a lot more touristy than Phnom Penh. It had a great night life scene, and there was a lot more to see and do. I think my most favourite thing that we did - and one of the most memorable things I've ever seen - was when we took the day to tour around Angkor Wat. It is a Hindu and Buddhusit temple city of sorts in Cambodia that hosts some of the largest and oldest temples in the world. It was absolutely breathtaking and like nothing I've seen before. We got up before the sun (literally) to be at Angkor Wat to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat temple. Those of you who know me well know I AM NOT a morning person. At all. I don't rise before the sun. It's not something I do. But this was well worth the tiredness. I can't put in to words what I saw, but I can show you the pictures. I don't think they will do it justice, but at least you'll get a taste. We had an amazing tour guide for the day. His english name was Sam. He knew his stuff! And he fed us a lot of information, some of which I can't remember. But it was great to have him for the day jetting us around on his tuk tuk and making sure we saw the important things. I doubt he'll ever read this, but thanks Sam! 

Other highlights from Siem Reap include:
      - boating around on the Tonel Sap and seeing the floating villages.
    - the NIGHT MARKET! Oh my gosh, I love night markets now after this trip. Bartering, shopping,   food, trinkets, clothes, jewelry! What's not to love?
      - meeting up with old STU friends at a cafe. It was so great to catch up with these ladies :) 
      - seeing the culture of Pub Street. 
      - sitting by the pool soaking up the sun at our hostel, the Mad Monkey. 

While seeing the historic sights at Angkor Wat was amazing, I have to say that my favourite thing I did in Siem Reap was the cooking course I took one afternoon. So predictable of me to have my favourite activity surround food, but like one of my culinary idols, Anthony Bourdain, so famously says "Life's too short not to eat good food!" Amen, brother! At this cooking course I got to see what a typical Cambodian kitchen looks like, pick out fresh ingredients for our meal, and use a mortar and pestle for the first time (which will be one of the first kitchen tools I purchase when I finally settle down). Everything was completely hands on. I got to chop all of my ingredients, mix them, cook them, and produce a final product with the instruction of a Cambodian chef. We made fresh spring rolls for an appetizer, Cambodian chicken curry for the main course, and a traditional Cambodian cake dessert that tasted a lot like an ice cream cone. Once we were finished cooking, we chowed down on all of our hard work. It was so delicious! I've attempted to make the fresh spring rolls again back in my own apartment in Beijing. It took a couple of practice rounds, but I think I've got the technique and flavours down pat, and I make them quite regularly now. I loved every minute of my time at Sojourn Kitchen in Siem Reap, Cambodia! 

Siem Reap was a great place to visit. Cambodia as a whole was a great place to visit. Much like Vietnam, I was pleasantly surprised at how upbeat, friendly, and welcoming the locals were. I learned so much about the country and the history while I was there. It was truly inspiring to see these people carry on with their lives and their positive outlooks when they had been through so much turmoil and heartache as a country. Though there was a lot of begging for us to buy goods off people in the streets, and we were approached a lot for spare change, the people were also friendly, offered beautiful smiles, and greeted us without hesitation. Maybe I'm being naive to it all, and maybe their friendliness was just because they thought they would get monetary value out of it, but I'd like to think it was from the goodness of their hearts. Because honestly, that's how it felt. I honestly thought that some of these locals were genuinely happy to see me, and it fills my heart with so much love, appreciation, and inspiration. 

Last leg of the trip to come - Thailand! 

PS - Sorry it has taken me so long to update. Work, life, and VPN probs. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

To Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve.

Yesterday, I was teaching my students some new english phrases like "head over heels" and "wear your heart of your sleeve." I was having a hard time explaining what it meant to wear your heart on your sleeve to my ESL (english as a second language) students, so I brought out my superb acting skills. What happened next was one of the cutest things I've experienced as a teacher: 

PS - Brad, if you are reading this...I tend to use you as an example a lot in my lessons because my students have met you and they think you are funny. Don't let that go to your head. 

Me: When my brother finds out something sad, he will say "Oh, that sucks. That makes me sad." But, when I find out something sad *cue sobs, cries, and full body shakes.* 

Students laugh. 

Me: I wear my heart on my sleeve. I show my emotions easily and intensely. 

L: Melissa, I have a question. 

Me: Yes, L. 

L: What was your job before you were a teacher? 

Me: I was a student like you. I was a high school student, then a university student, and now I am a teacher.

L: Oh. Because you could be a famous actor! 

The students all started yelling "YA!" and clapping. I then said thank you and took a grand bow. 

I love my students and my job. They say the most wonderful things!