Dear Mosquito

I am a mosquito magnet.

From my first week in Cambodia until the end, they were all over me. I used to joke that people around me didn’t need to worry about putting on mosquito repellant because the mosquitoes would feast on me first.

My bites would swell up so much that in my first month I was on anti-histamines to try to convince my body not to get so excited about them. People kept telling me that it would get better after 6 weeks. The mosquitoes would stop making a bee line for me. Nope. It took many years of constantly being bitten before my body decided that a small bump was a sufficient reaction. Then when I got dengue, I decided that I’d had enough of living with mosquitoes. But that is a story for another time.

Other mosquito poems have been published on this blog, testifying to my special relationship with them. Haha.

However, the time date on the holiday photos tell me that it was 18 months into my time in Cambodia, on holiday in Kep, that I started writing this – my original mosquito poem – and Mosquito, a haiku. I tested it out on the group at breakfast. They laughed a lot. We laughed a lot and then I slapped my arm because I’d just been bitten! I’ve tried finishing this poem a few times since but it just didn’t seem to work. This week, wanting to spend an evening, not marking student work, I finally got it out, pulled together the various versions, got some feedback on it from some of the members of the original audience. Et voilà.

Dear Mosquito

Dear Mosquito,
Regarding the note you left last night,
Notes, in fact.
Which I found
indelibly written in red.
Presumably to underline your point,
as a mark of your love.

Inflamed with lust,
Laced with a wee dram of poison,
As if to say, if I can’t have you
then no-one will.

It’s just that,
And, I don’t want to hurt your feelings,
I mean no disrespect.
But wouldn’t you agree that we appear to be quite unsuited to each other?
I don’t react well to you.
My defences go into overdrive.

Besides you’re not the first suitor
of your ilk, who has been pursuing me.

Let me explain.
Was it your great, great, great aunt
who chanced upon me?  Hmmmmmm…
Untouched, uninitiated in this
mating ritual.
A slap here, a sting there.

Did word somehow get out that I was
Prime and ready,
Sweet and easy pickings?

One after another,
persisting with their whining salutations
and affectionate greetings.
Arousing me after each visit.
You’d each leave.
Drunk on my blood.
I thought, this is my destiny.

We played tennis together.
It was electric.
You won, love/40.

I’ve clapped my hands for you.
Waited up in the wee hours of the morning to find you.
I’ve rubbed on lotions,
anointed myself with oil to
repel you.

Mosquito, explain.
What is it that you find so irresistible about me?
My bare skin?
My blood type?
My sweet scent?

Well, you leave me no choice
But to say that I have grown tired of your voice.
Wised up to your morning kisses.
The suffocating silences.
The nightly visitations.
Your methods of seduction
don’t beguile me any more.

Mosquito. 
No more.
I’m through.

Some of you have queried what I mean by playing tennis with a mosquito. Here is an example of an electric bat/racket to slay mosquitoes.

Peace, a haiku, a run and a prayer during Covid-19 disruption

I joined a creatives group in the new year while I was in Aberdeen.  Caralyn, the same one who encouraged me to blog again, talked me into going along with her and frogmarched me to introduce me to the group leader.  This was very much necessary because the shy introvert in me was reluctant to make any new friends.

I should backtrack a wee bit to provide some context. My first month following my return from Cambodia was bewildering. I didn’t know what was going to happen next or where I was going to be, other than I was back living at my mum’s and it had been the right time to end my Cambodia life. I was exhausted from my life being flipped upside down. That October felt particularly cold and I kept looking aghast at people dressed in shorts when it was below 6 degrees celsius. As I pulled on my four layers and searched for some thermal clothing, I started to experience regular moments when I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly, and I’d be scared to fall asleep in case my body forgot how to breath while I slept. This is me, who has never suffered from anxiety.

My struggle with the cold.

Two things really helped. Firstly, I got help. I engaged a coach to help me go through this transition. Someone I didn’t know who had gone through major changes moving from one country to another. She gave me a structure to the transition. When things got hard in month 3, she reassured me that months 3 and 4 normally held the most tension as friends asked what you had decided to do, when you had decided nothing because those decisions still felt overwhelming, like the circumstances were too fluid to make any concrete decisions. Secondly, a friend reassured me that my panic was a common reaction to major disruptive changes. He agreed with my recognition that this season was a ‘winter’, so to take it easy, do very little “productively”, to remember to take deep breaths and do a little exercise. It helped to normalise my situation and after that first month, I could breathe a little easier.

By January, I was quite happily in the rhythms of my ‘splendid isolation’ or ‘my winter’ in the North East of Scotland. The name inspired by Britain’s 19th century foreign policy of splendid isolation and all the Brexit chatter. After the turbulence of the last few years, the peace and stillness was exactly what I needed. In all honesty this is what I had nicknamed this season of my life weeks before self-isolating and social distancing were to become a thing. The flip side of my choices was that I had reverted to being a shy turtle. Eyes peering out over my scarf and hat. Checking out who the safe people were to talk to before deciding that I’d rather be talking to trees.

Some of the trees I would talk to

I was also intimidated by the thought that this creatives group would be made up of all art school/’I studied design/drama/writing at university’ type people.  However, in actual fact, yes some of the group are like that but the group is made up of a variety of people with different craft/art/food/creative writing/photography/design interests and passions.  I surprised myself by enjoying their company and the discussions. The following weeks, I went back and started making new friends.

When I moved to another city for a new job three weeks ago, I didn’t expect to be able to continue to be part of them. However, because of the Covid-19 lockdown measures, we moved to meeting online.  Each week we focus on something different.  This week, the focus was on peace.

I found myself meditating on this song by Mosaic MSC every time I went outside for my daily walk/run.  It begins, peace, bring it all to peace.  Apt, right?  I would pray for family, friends and people I knew who were ill or in the vulnerable group, or in difficult/stressful/anxious situations to know God’s peace.  An hour before we were due to meet online, I suddenly worried that my meditative peace prayers wouldn’t count as a creative output.  Thus, I quickly cobbled together this haiku on peace as my contribution instead.

Peace

Piece by piece, step by
Step. What was overwhelming
Becomes breathable

It began as a thought, ‘what if I did a play on words with peace/piece’.  (There are a couple of quilters in my creatives group.) For me, it evokes memories of marathon training, running up hills, the times I began a couch to 5k programme after time out because of injury. Then there is the sleepless 48 hours when I had a dengue fever rash that covered my entire body and as I cried alone in pain and frustration I kept reminding myself that this too will pass.

I had to learn a lot about pain, rest, asking for help, sabbaticals and self-care during my Cambodia years but especially so in the last two years. One picture that has really comforted me this year has been of God’s hands holding me in this dark vacuum as I feel like I’m falling. He has got me. You might not be religious, but I’m sharing that picture in case it offers you some comfort.

One more thing. When all the things that you rely on to keep you happy are stripped away, if you can, do one thing each day FOR YOU that you enjoy, whether it’s quilting, DIY, reading a book, burning onions, binge-watching a TV series, talking to the guinea pigs.  That’s self-care.  Do the things you have to do too.  And remember.  This too will pass.

I still burn onions

Many, many years ago, before I moved out to Cambodia, when cooking was a still a delight, I half-jokingly set myself a target.  When I could master not burning onions and garlic whilst cooking, I would apply for the TV show Masterchef.

Well, I still burn onions.  A couple of weeks ago, I cooked Bon Appetit’s mushroom carbonara for my mum.  It was my third time making this recipe.  When I asked her what she thought of it, she, ever truthful, asked me, “Was it burnt?”  I related this story to some friends last night and they were taken aback.  “How can you still be burning onions?”  And not only them.  My Cambodian friends couldn’t understand how I could cook onions and garlic to an acrid black.  To them it was elementary: it’s about heat control.  Clearly I’m still a novice at it.  In my 6 years in Cambodia, I may have learned how to pound Cambodian curry pastes, bake the softest Texan cinnamon rolls, work with pastry at 32°c but I still burn onions.

When I recently moved back to the UK from Cambodia, there was only one thing really that I wanted to do.  That was to learn how to cook again.

I write recent but I moved back mid October and now its mid March, so it’s been 5 months.  Still, it feels recent to me.  Committing to living back in the UK again has been hard.  It’s not because I don’t like being in the UK: I’ve written about how I welcomed its bracing winds when I’ve escaped hot season in Cambodia and how I missed my family.  Rather, it’s because I thoroughly loved living my life in ‘the Penh’, as we, expats, affectionately nicknamed Phnom Penh.  I miss my friends, my apartment, my teaching job, my baking business, my running group, my CrossFit gym…  Notice how I preface them all with ‘my’.  I owned it.  They were pieces of a bigger jigsaw that was ME in Cambodia.  Now in the midst of transition, walking on this unsteady bridge of one life left and the other yet to start, I miss the security of it.  However, I’ve gone off on a tangent and I won’t write about why I left just yet.  I’d rather share with you the reason why I’m back blogging again.

So back to burning onions and the only thing I really wanted to do when I came back was to learn to cook again.  A friend of mine, Caralyn, suggested that I start writing on my blog again.  I had been rewatching BBC’s Sherlock and in that first episode, John Watson is encouraged by his therapist to write a blog.  She promises that it will help.  I read elsewhere that it can indeed help for reflecting and thinking about what happened, and what lies ahead.  So the plan is that I’ll tell you about bits of life and recipes that I didn’t have time to share with you when I lived in Cambodia.  Because, as it turns out, teaching full-time, volunteering at a local Cambodian church and running a little baking business on the side clocks a lot of hours!  As I do so, I’m hoping that this exercise in remembering will help me to record snapshots of life in Cambodia, but also the transition to being back in the UK.   Besides, I know I enjoy this kind of writing – posts about food and poetry about everyday life, like mosquitoes!

Evidence of my burnt mushroom carbonara dinner offering

The second time I made the mushroom carbonara, I scrambled the eggs. I didn’t burn the mushrooms but I forgot to add the onions.

 

The Mosquito Bites

The Mosquito Bites 

If you join the dots,

There’s an equilateral triangle mapped out on my chest.

My skin, a canvas to the mosquitoes,

Like the night sky, and they are gods.

 

You made me think

that I had measles or shingles, all for a moment.

Then I found the final

Dot.  The Southern Cross.  On my chin.

An Evening Walk in Phsar Doeum Thkov

a view from the frangipani flowers on my street
a view from the frangipani flowers on my street

I’ve joined this writing group and the first assignment was to write a poem in iambic pentameter (penta, means 5.  iambs, that’s a unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, think daDUM.  So iambic pentameter is 5 sets of iambs).  They gave us some lines to start us off.  I found the exercise much trickier than I thought it would be.  In the end, I wrote something but it felt like it was fitting a square peg in a round hole.

So, I’ve unpegged it.  And let the lines run free.  I think they feel better for it.  I’ve tried to keep the ending in iambic pentameter.  A bit of discipline never went amiss.

It’s a bit dark… but it was sort of inspired by the upcoming 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge.

*Phsar Doeum Thkov is the neighbourhood where I live in Phnom Penh.

An evening walk in Phsar Doeum Thkov*

These streets have no name.  They’re just numbers on a map.

Street five hundred is mine.

 

I walk them as sun sets.

Five-0-two is next.

Dogs shake off hot sun,

stretch and yap at my feet.

I don’t like it.

 

5-0-4 is cheerfully lined with white, pink and yellow

frangipani trees. I’d linger but,

for the dogs. Besides, I’m meant to be doing exercise.

There, a huge white house stands behind

iron gates. Next door, a wooden shack.

Do the neighbours talk to one another?

 

These nameless streets hold innumerable,

unsaid, unspoken, memories. Walls, Stones,

dare I ask, what happened? Who fell? When? Who

cowered? Cried? Wept? Died? How? Bludgeoned? Shot? Who

survived? What? And can they grieve now? Or do

unspeakable acts of terror haunt them?

As sun sets? As the dark draws in. I wonder.

Learning Khmer 101

Before I moved to Cambodia, I set myself the fun challenge of seeing how fluent I could be in khmer within 6 months.  (Khmer being the language that they speak in Cambodia.)  1.5 months in, I’m enrolled onto a ‘Survival Khmer’ course at a school called Language Exchange Cambodia (LEC) near the Russian Market, which is a 20 minute walk  or a 5 minute moto ride away from where I’m living now.

Classes at LEC
The rooftop at LEC where I have my language classes in one of the cubicles

You can have group or individual lessons, but since most people turn up at the language school on their own like me, most of LEC’s clients have lessons one on one.  I began a week after I arrived, which means that I’m coming up to my fifth week of lessons.  I started off with 2 hour lessons, 4 days a week.  However, as the one on one teaching is taxing to both teacher and student, I downsized it to 1.5 hours 4 days a week to make them more enjoyable.  Learning language is not a sprint race, it’s more like a marathon, so I’m trying to pace myself.  After my language lesson, I’ll try and make myself use whatever I have learned in the classroom with anybody who will talk with me.  The guard at the school, my motodop driver, the housekeeper have all been subjected to rather random conversations with me.  Some topics are easier to practice than others…

Asking Narith what time he brushes his hair
Asking Narith what time he brushes his hair

LEC’s motto is, learning to speak khmer like khmer.  This means that they teach the informal khmer that is spoken first, rather than the formal khmer that people use for reading and writing. It’s quite an unusual approach and it’s certainly raising eyebrows with rather a lot of people, khmer and expat alike: I come out with a lot of slang and drop off the ends and beginnings of words, like many of the native speakers do here.  Not only that, but I have also discovered that Cambodians have a quick wit and love to play with language.  I don’t know the linguistic term for this, but they often like to swap the sounds around e.g. sok sabbei → sei sabok.  From time to time, my teacher unconsciously drops into this slang slang khmer, as he calls it: I’ve dubbed it cockney khmer.  Here’s a recording of some numbers in cockney khmer.  See if you can work out what he’s done. 

My teacher is from Kratié province, in the northeast of Cambodia, which he pronounces K’tech.  Therefore, I joke with my friends that I’m acquiring a northern khmer accent, the equivalent of a ‘geordie’ accent.  Then, there are some khmer sounds that I find difficult to get my tongue round, and so my teacher occasionally adjusts the way that he says them. ‘This is how they say it in Takeo province, which is south of Phnom Penh.  I think that this way is easier for you.’  So, how about that, eh?  My khmer accent has even acquired ‘somerset’ notes.

a page from my khmer vocabulary book

LEC won’t teach me the khmer script on their ‘Survival Khmer’ course, so I’ve come up with my own method to master the different sounds.  I have a vocab book, in which I write down all the words and phrases that I am learning.  Each page is folded down the middle and on the left hand side I write the english word; on the right, the khmer word in phonetic roman script.  And then, more often that not, I’ll write the sounds phonetically in korean too.  The korean alphabet is phonetic and there are lots of sounds in korean that are much easier to write than in english, which isn’t a phonetic language.  As I lack a khmer alphabet on which to hang the sounds, my brain often visualises the sound in korean, and actually what I end up doing, is seeing the sound in korean, writing it in english, and then writing the sound again in korean so that I can write it phonetically.  It does sound rather long-winded and absurd, but that’s how it has to be because my memory fares poorly in remembering korean letters.  In fact, on my first lesson, it was a real headache because I was using korean to write some words and english for others, and my poor wee brain couldn’t take in learning a new language using two very different scripts!

I’m certainly not learning perfect khmer.  But, for the first time in my experience of learning languages, I don’t care.  There’ll be an opportunity to learn the more formal stuff later…  In the meantime, watch out inhabitants of Phnom Penh – there’s a wee scottish-korean girl with absurd questions on the loose.

Spiced Banana and Dark Chocolate Chunk Cake: the first foray into baking in Cambodia

Banana and chocolate chunk cake

I hadn’t meant to create an entirely different cake when I decided to bake the chocolate, whiskey, currant banana cake (or Dumb Rum Banana Cake, as it’s known in Emma’s house) as my hello gift to Liberty Family Church.  The cake just morphed into something different as Becci and I trawled along the aisles in Lucky Supermarket, looking for ingredients, on my first Saturday in Cambodia.

  • Firstly, I discovered that butter is expensive.  The cheapest block of 227g of butter was $3.50
  • Chocolate is expensive as I expected.  There isn’t a tesco value or sainsbury basic equivalent block of dark chocolate that I can use either.  Hmm…
  • Sultanas and currants are ridiculously expensive.  The 180g of sultanas was going to cost me $1.90.
  • I couldn’t see a bag of walnuts or pecans that I can use in baking.
  • Rum or whiskey – well, alcohol is pretty cheap in Cambodia.  I wasn’t sure whether Cambodians would like the flavour of either one of them in a cake.

I’m standing looking at the dried food shelves and wondering if there’s any cheap dried fruit in Cambodia.   I’m scratching my head, ‘what am I going to do about flavour and texture?’  All my normal options were out and obviously I needed to economise on some ingredients.  And thus the cake transforms from a chocolate, nutty, whiskey, currant, banana cake into a spiced, banana cake with chocolate chunks.  ‘Out with the dried fruit and nuts’, I decide.  ‘I’m going to add flavour with a mix of spices and create texture by adding a greater quantity of chocolate chunks to it.’

Plenty of chocolate surely covers over a multitude of improvisations.

There was never a moment of questioning whether I should bother baking.  Needs must and all that – I wanted to give a hello present to the church and I needed to do some baking.

ingredients for banana and chocolate chunk cake

Ingredients for the Spiced Banana and Dark Chocolate Chunk Cake

  • 175g plain flour
  • 2 tsps of mixed spice or 1 tsp of cinnamon powder, 1/2 tsp of ground ginger, 1/4 tsp of ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp of ground cloves
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, melted
  • 90-100g soft brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 large or 4 small very ripe bananas, mashed (about 300g in weight with the skins off)
  • 200g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/gas mark 3 and line (preferably) springform cake tin, anywhere between 23-25cm. I only had a 25cm round cake tin at hand.  It was the first time I’d used it and it worked beautifully for sharing with so many people.

2. Measure out the plain flour, spices, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, salt and give them all a good mix with a metal or wooden spoon. This means that you don’t get any lumps of salt or bicarbonate of soda in the eventual cake.

3. Melt the butter either in a pan or in zap it in the microwave in a pyrex bowl.  Now add the sugar to the butter and stir well until the sugar is well blended into the butter. It should look almost toffee-like in colour because of the brown sugar. Follow with the eggs. Beat them in, one at a time, to the sugary buttery mixture.

Top tip: Emma shared a really good tip with me, if you are going to melt the butter in the microwave.  Use a pyrex bowl, add the butter and COVER IT WITH KITCHEN PAPER.  It means that if the butter happens to explode in the microwave, because you zap the butter for a bit too long, it won’t go all over the inside of your microwave.

preparing to bake banana and chocolate chunk cake

4.  Now add the mashed bananas,vanilla extract and the chopped chocolate to the mixture and mix them in well.

5. Add in the flour mix (from step 2) but add a third of it at a time, stirring well after each addition. Once all of the dry mixture is mixed in, add the cake mixture into the cake tin and bake in the middle of the oven for 50-60 minutes. I check after 40 minutes and if the cake looks like it is browning at the top too quickly, then I cover it with some baking paper to protect the cake from burning. The time needed for the cake to bake will vary depending on the size of the cake tin that you use, so don’t worry if the cake needs an extra 15-20 minutes in the oven. You’ll know when the cake is done when you insert a cake tester, or I use a sharp knife, into the cake and the tester comes out clean.

6.  Let the cake cool completely.  Then cut it up into as many pieces as you like and share it around.

Of course, you could serve it whilst it’s still warm with cream or icecream.  I just find that the cake is easier to cut when it is cold and you don’t get so much chocolate goo all over the knife as you are cutting it.  The cake stores well in an airtight container – not that this one had a chance.  It was all gobbled up in under 10 minutes.

The verdict? The cake is really tasty.  The chocolate chunks give it texture and bite that would be missing if you omitted them.  The spices worked really well in transforming the flavour of this cake and it went down really well with the Cambodian palette too.  I still prefer the chocolatey, whiskey and currant version of the cake (who would blame me) but while I’m here, I will quite happily bake this new banana and chocolate cake.

Cake, anyone?