I Saw a Rat

I saw a rat today

it scampered in the street

between tires and human feet 

I saw a rat today

it made a lady scream

then disappeared unseen

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I dreamt of home last night

there’s my old Mazda 323 

it still drives like a dream

I dreamt of home last night

wearing jackets in the cold

seeing brothers growing old

 

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I sweat alot today

explored markets in the heat

saw butcher knives cleave meat

I sweat alot today

6 am run with our group

we passed Toul Sleng on our loop

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I spoke Khmer today

conversed well for half a minute

then ran out of words to finish

I spoke Khmer today

at the market described grease gun

had to image search it with seller’s son

 

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I got ripped off today

took a part to get some paint

made a deal sounded straight

I got ripped off today

he said pick it up at four

when I returned he wanted more

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I saw a rat last night

we were walking in a park

it was quiet and quite dark

I saw a rat last night

as I passed the garbage can

it leaped from the rim and ran

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I caught a glimpse today

of my life and how it’s new 

with a changing point of view

I caught a glimpse today

of how God leads me like a lamb

to learn who He says I am

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Offices don’t fall from the sky, but eggs do

For our first year here in Cambodia, we and our teammates are focusing on learning the Khmer language. Our goal is to open the engineering / architecture office early 2018, but offices don’t just fall out of the sky – they require an immense amount of preparation and foundation laying. As a team, we meet together every week to discuss plans for next year. But we also realized there were still many questions that we needed to spend some focused time on together without the distractions of our daily language learning grind.

We decided to spend 3 whole days together here in Phnom Penh at a hotel during a week long break between language levels. Our time together was very fruitful! We worshiped and studied God’s Word, played games and swam in the pool, ate lots of good food and did a team building egg drop competition. But the bulk of our time was spent discussing and brainstorming the following topics:

  • Office vision statement
  • Our customers and their needs
  • Revenue streams
  • Culture shock check-up
  • Office dynamics / culture
  • Hiring local staff
  • Office location

We made some great progress! Many questions were answered, while many new questions surfaced. We created a list of ‘action items,’ tangible items we can begin to work on in the coming months. It was an exciting 3 days!

On the morning of our first day, we looked at the book of Joshua and the Israelite’s entrance into the promised land. This was the big moment for which they had been waiting 40 years, and we could imagine they wanted to make the perfect plan. But we noticed so many of God’s instructions to the Israelite’s were a bit unconventional (you can read it for yourself in Joshua 1-6). What we learned from this story: God’s plans are bigger and better than ours; sometimes God’s plans don’t make sense in our human eyes; God will glorify Himself through us before the nations; and we must walk in faith.

Ultimately, we want God to be guiding our team through the process of setting up the office here in Cambodia. We want to follow His lead, even if that means doing some unconventional things. We are excited to share this journey with you, and we ask that you keep us in your prayers as we seek to walk by faith.

“God’s people had faith, and when they had walked around the city of Jericho for seven days, its walls fell down.” – Hebrews 11:30

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The meeting room

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Will the eggs would survive the drop?

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Team “Bird’s Nest”

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Team “Egg Splorer I”

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About to test the parachute

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Many sticky notes were used to help us brainstorm

Transition Time: Language

Before we moved to Cambodia, we along with our teammates decided it was a high priority to learn the language of the people we’d be interacting with on a daily basis. Many people asked us why we couldn’t just use English, or just learn enough to buy food at the market. Nelson Mandela answers this question best: 

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 

Since we want to make friends and have heart to heart conversations, we committed the first year of our time in Cambodia to learning Khmer full time.

 As we’re just about at the halfway point of this full time language learning journey, we thought we’d share a glimpse of what the Khmer language is like, and what it feels like to learn a new language. 

Here Colin answers the question: is Khmer read left to right?

Language and Culture

One of the best ways to begin to grasp culture is to learn the language of the people. For example, Khmer has (at least) 5 different words for “eat” and 5 different words for “sleep.” One is used with animals, one with friends, one with older people, one for monks, and one for the King. It would be rude to have guests over and say, “please eat” using the ‘eat’ that is for animals. In the same way, you would disrespect a monk if you asked him how he slept last night using the ‘sleep’ you use with your friends. This is just a small example of how the cultural traits of honour and social hierarchy are built into the language.

Another example of how language reflects the people and the place is in the variety of vocabulary. Our language helper was teaching me a word that meant “carry,” but then he acted it out by holding his arms out like pallet forks. He explained that Khmer has different words that mean “carry” depending on how you carry: on your head, over your shoulder, on your back, around your waist, with your arms out, etc. It makes total sense to have individual words for each type of “carry” in a place where the majority of people are still farmers, and manual labour is the norm. 

We are so thankful that we are learning the Khmer language, because through language we get a much deeper grasp of the culture and the history of the Khmer people. 

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Colin giving his first presentation on a famous Khmer person. 

Feelings

If you’re wondering how it feels to learn a new language, it is hard to describe, but here goes. Mostly, we feel like children. We’ve been transported back to grade 1 where we hardly understand what is going on around us, and when we try to speak, we sound funny. “Adults” have conversations around us, but we only catch maybe 1 word per sentence, and we miss most of the meaning being conveyed. Khmer friends teach us funny words, like ‘crocodile plate’ (oval shaped serving platter). We often make fools of ourselves, like when Colin was trying to describe the smell of the food coming from the church kitchen, but he confused the words for ‘good smelling food’ and ‘garbage/sewer smell’ because they rhyme (of course). Or when one of our male teammates asked his language helper if it was culturally appropriate to hold his ‘husband’s’ hand. 

Learning a language is hard. It challenges all the patterns and associations our brains have worked so hard to establish during our childhood as we learned our first language. We have learned to give thanks for elements of the Khmer language that are easy, like no verb conjugation, same word for “I, me, my, mine,” and a relatively phonetic alphabet. And we continue to grapple with the hard elements, like those little words that mean 10 different things depending on how you use them. One major item we’re working on right now is fitting the written script into our brains: 33 consonants, 32 consonant subscripts, 24 vowels (each with 2 sounds), 15 independent vowels, plus some extra symbols that change the way things sound. Fun times! 

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Motos galore

What’s it worth?

Is it worth it? Absolutely! Nelson Mandela’s quote above is spot on. Even with the little we know after 5 months of study, many people we interact with are surprised and happy to meet foreigners who speak their language. We are often asked by locals, “how many years have you lived here?” When we tell them how many months, they are blown away. When we tell them we are spending a year studying their language, they think it’s a great idea. Speaking with them in their heart language brings them honour. It shows them that the words they speak and understand are valuable.

“There are many different languages in this world, and all of them make sense. But if I don’t understand the language that someone is using, we will be like foreigners to each other.” – 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 (Contemporary English Version)

 

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Colin choosing vegetables. Safety first.

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Major road construction doesn’t always include pylons, detours, or warning!  

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Tennis Fun!

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Celebrating one of our teammates birthdays together.

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Watching an international football match between Cambodia and Afghanistan (ticket price: $1.25).

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Khmer New Year – our first go round

“Sous-Dey Joul Chnam T’my!” says the auntie who lives in the bottom of our building. We’ve just returned from a 7 day trip to Malaysia, and it’s April 14. We’ve been struggling to remember that today is Good Friday, and it felt weird to be travelling during this important day in our Christian calendar. Now we’re back at our home in Cambodia, but it’s not Good Friday here – it’s New Year’s Day, the first of 3 days to celebrate Joul Chnam T’my.

We’re still so new to life here in Cambodia, that we can’t adequately explain the history or meaning of a holiday like this very well. If you’d like less anecdotal information, allow us to direct you to wikipedia – Cambodian New Year.

What we heard from others who have lived here longer is that Khmer New Year is the biggest holiday of the Cambodian calendar. Although it is officially 3 days, most people are given 5 to 7 days off of work, depending on how the holiday falls around a weekend. The vast majority of people will return to their hometown, and everyone enjoys a huge family reunion. We live in Phnom Penh, the capital city, but we’re learning that not many people who live here were born and raised here. One of the first questions we ask when we are practicing our Khmer with a stranger is, “What province are you from?” Out of maybe 30 cases, I can only think of 2 or 3 people who were from Phnom Penh. Wow! So we were told that Phnom Penh ‘shuts down’ during the New Year holidays.

Our language school gave students and teachers April 9 – 17 off, and we thought since the city would be vacant, why not look into going to another country in South East Asia? We ended up choosing Malaysia because of ridiculously cheap flights (for photos, see Facebook). The timing of our trip had us arriving back in Phnom Penh on the 14th of April, which allowed us to experience a few days of the quiet streets. If you remember the video we took of us cycling through Phnom Penh, then the following video will show quite the contrast:

Fortunately for us, we didn’t miss out on all of the celebration and games that come with the New Year holiday. Our church, which is about 70% Khmer, was not going to have any services over the April 14 – 16 weekend since most of them would be leaving town. So they held a special pre-New Year celebration service with a focus on outreach on April 2. There was worship (Colin got to play his cajon), a message, lots of food, and games. One thing we’re learning is that Khmer New Year means game on! Here’s a video from that service with Colin participating in a game:

Today is Monday the 17th, and the streets are filling up again with people returning from their hometowns. We went to our favourite vegetable shop, and they were open, but low on stock. Some of the shops on our street have slid away the heavy metal gates that protected them in their owner’s absence. Tomorrow is back to language school for us, and back to the daily grind for most Cambodians. I wonder if the weeks ahead they will feel the same way we would feel the first few weeks of January: post-holiday syndrome. Before the New Year most of the people we talked to were visibly excited as they told us how much they looked forward to time with family and friends, food and fun, and those games!

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Another game: blindfolded, with one chance to swing at the clay pot, she must listen to one person give directions as everyone else shouts out wrong directions

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The streets are dirty, so after almost 3 months we decided it was time to get our bikes washed

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While on a bike ride south of the city, we found some Chinese men working on a new road

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If you’re a roofer here, harnesses are optional

Transition Time: Culture

Culture: it is mysterious, yet blatantly obvious; we try to define it, yet it is always in flux; it shapes who we are today, yet it has roots in a history long before our birth.

Culture is least obvious to us when we are in our own. When the majority of the people around you behave and think the same way as you, we tend to forget the vast differences between people.

For the record, if you are hoping to find an elaborate exposition on Khmer culture in the following paragraphs, wow, are you going to be disappointed! We have been here less than 3 months, and we are doing our best to reserve judgement. What does reserve judgement mean?

As humans, we seek to build our knowledge based on our observations of the world around us. For example, as children most of us learned that a red stove top is hot, and we will be burned if we touch it. We need this knowledge so we know how to act when we see another red stove top in the future.

In the same way when we come to a new culture, our tendency is to try and create knowledge based on our observations. For example, we see a father and mother laughing and playing with their young child in front of their house. They show affection to their child, and seem filled with joy at being parents. We may think, “wow, Cambodian parents really love their children!” And without knowing it, we have begun to make conclusions about a culture based on little evidence.

So we won’t be trying in any way to explain the culture here in Cambodia for you. Instead, we will share a couple short stories of experiences we’ve had in our brief time here.

Wedding Time: did you watch the video at the beginning of this post? Do you know what was happening in the video? What was all that loud strange music for? We asked ourselves these same questions, because this video was taken the first day we were in Cambodia. This video was taken before 8am on a Sunday morning! What we learned from our hosts was that there was a wedding taking place just across the street. You can see the white wedding tent between the two rows of houses in the video. It turns out, for a typical Khmer wedding in Cambodia, the wedding tent takes over the street and the multi-day event is heard by all neighbours, including the traditional music playing at concert decibels shortly after sunrise in the morning.

Wrong Number: one evening back in February Colin’s phone rang. It was a number he didn’t have saved in his phone, but he picked it up anyways. A man started talking fast in Khmer. Colin tried to use his limited Khmer to explain he didn’t speak much Khmer. The caller switched to English and asked for a certain name. Colin said he didn’t know him, and the caller said this number used to be his old friend’s. Once it was clear the caller had the wrong number, Colin expected the typical, “whoops, sorry, wrong number, bye.” But instead, the caller started asking questions: what’s your name, where are you from, how long have you lived in Cambodia, what is your job, etc. Colin answered all these questions with great patience. Then even more unexpected: “can I keep your number saved in my phone, so maybe we could talk more?” Colin: “um, what for?” Caller: “maybe we could be friends!” Colin: “ah… sure, why not.” Sure enough, occasionally Colin gets a text from a guy named Paully asking how he’s doing. Sometimes you just have to embrace the uncomfortable and the unexpected!

These are just two examples of a myriad of ways in which we are being exposed to the culture here every day. We are gradually learning more each day, but we are a long ways away from understanding even the tip of the iceberg of Khmer culture. When the differences between us seem too big, and we long to be with people who really understand us, we must remind ourselves that God made all people in His image. And as we’re starting to experience here at church, it is a beautiful thing when we can find unity in our identity in Christ!

From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be. God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn’t far from any of us, and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said.” – Acts 17:26-28

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Temple at Angkor Wat

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Colin bombed around the Siem Reap countryside on this rental moto until the belt snapped.

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Kathleen’s friend SherryAnn from Singapore came to visit and we had a great time with her!

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Mmm… mango on crepes!

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Hauling the bamboo shoe rack home

Transition Time: Transportation

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All humans are mobile. Whether you grow up in a village where everything you need is within a 10 kilometer radius of your home, or you commute 80 kilometers to work one way on 6 lane highways in a fast car, or you are a nomad herding your livestock over 1000 kilometers a year in search of pasture and water, we are all on the move. We all need to find a way to get where we need to go. Our road could be a dusty worn out path in the grass, a narrow street flanked by market vendors, or a concrete freeway wider than a football field. Our mode could be an animals back, a heavy old single speed bicycle, or a car that reminds us to wear our seatbelts.

Six weeks ago we moved from Canada to Cambodia. Back in Canada, we were no strangers to hitting the road. We love cross country road trips in the car, short rocky climbs around Whitehorse in the truck, and riding our bikes when the roads were finally clear of snow. But here in Cambodia, transportation is different. We’re transitioning to a new way of getting around. We hope this blog post helps you “come along for the ride” with us as we share what transportation is like for us here!

The Street:

The street is an extension of the home, a place of business, and a parking lot all at once. Driveways don’t exist here, and parking lots are few and far between. Most people park their cars and motos in their living rooms. Let me explain: most houses don’t really have ‘front doors,’ they have gates or fold-away walls that open up the ground floor room of the house in its entire width to the open air of the street just a meter or two away. Sometimes this room is used by a family to eat meals, or to host guests, or it becomes floorspace for the family business (a barber shop, a restaurant, a printing house, you name it!). But many times it becomes a ‘garage’ for a car or two and a handful of motos. The short few meters between the houses and the streets means that the street often becomes an extension of the home. ‘Sidewalks,’ if a street has them, are rarely walked on. They become floorspace for businesses like moto repair pitstops, a home restaurant’s patio, or more parking for cars and motos.

The Mode:

Motos outnumber cars and trucks 100 to 1 it seems. You’d be surprised what a moto can do. They can pull a covered carriage and become a “tuktuk.” Hook a 4′ by 8′ box trailer on one, and voila! You can haul a pickup truck load worth of vegetables. Or how about 16 foot lengths of rebar or i-beams? No problem, a moto can haul that too! Some of these poor motos sound desperately close to blowing an engine. Other motos’ bent frames are evidence they have hauled way too much weight way too many times.

Of the cars that do roam the streets here in Phnom Penh, you’d be surprised how nice most of them are. There is an incredibly high import tax for vehicles, which somehow shrinks the price gap between regular and luxury vehicles (it also means cars are more expensive here than in Canada). We don’t entirely understand how this works, but the result is we see way more Lexus, Mercedes, and Land Rover vehicles here.

The New Normal:

We brought bicycles with us when we moved to Cambodia. Within a few days of landing here, we entered the flow of traffic like an aquarium fish would enter a raging river: scared, timid, but ready to learn. Six weeks in, and we are getting the hang of it. Biking here requires absolute attention. Even at our slow speed, we rarely have the opportunity to take our eyes off the road and see what shops we’re passing by.

Intersections are the most tricky. Traffic lights are only found at the big intersections where multilane roads divided by concrete medians meet. The other 98% of intersections are without traffic lights or stop signs of any kind. It’s really hard to describe how they work… basically when we bike up to an intersection, we slow down a bit and look left, right, straight, and sometimes behind us. We are trying to guess the intentions of other riders. We are looking for an opening, and ideally we try to keep moving so we don’t have to stop and put our foot down. There is a lot of creativity involved, especially in left hand turns!

Although we have front and rear lights, we usually take tuktuks instead of riding our bikes at night. The risk level increases beyond our comfort level once the sun sets. Most streets are lit, but some blocks are left in the dark. Many motos don’t have working headlights or taillights, or the driver simply hasn’t turned them on. Later in the evening the traffic is lighter, which means the speeds are faster. Combine all these factors with the added probability that some people are driving drunk, and you have a recipe for a risky ride home.

I mounted my iPhone to my handlebars and videotaped a bike ride. The quality is not great, but hopefully it gives you an idea of what it’s like, especially the left hand turns!

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” – Proverbs 16:9

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The travelling banana stand man.

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Weddings happen on the streets too. This wedding tent filled a busy street one block from our house. The result on our street . . .

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Our small and usually tame street became jammed because of the wedding one block away. Cars took 10 minutes to pass through this photo.

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Rail transport is making a comeback in Cambodia. Passenger train service from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville via Kampot started last year. These tracks through Phnom Penh double as an unpaved road.

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The streets were very quiet over the Chinese New Year weekend. It was a great time to bike around and explore the city.

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Transition Time: Food

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Greetings from the Kingdom of Cambodia! We have been in country for 17 days, and we’re right in the midst of transition. On our 3rd day here we began language school. Although officially on our schedule the only task we have is learning the Khmer (pronounced k-my) language and the homework we receive each day, we have quickly come to realize how many other realms of life we need to relearn. We have decided to start a series of blog posts titled “Transition Time.” Each post will cover a different area of life. Today we’ll talk about food.

What is Khmer food? What food is grown locally and what is imported? Where should we buy food? Where should we eat out? How much does food cost?

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For the first week of our arrival, we did not have the ability to cook for ourselves, so we were eating out for both lunch and dinner every day. The hard part about eating out is whether we can communicate Kathleen’s celiac needs to the staff, and whether they will actually understand and make the food without gluten. Without any language skills or resources when we first arrived, every meal became a huge risk to her health. We were able to get our language teacher on the first day of class to write out in Khmer, “I cannot eat soy sauce. I cannot eat wheat. Please make my dish without soy sauce or wheat.” Kathleen was then able to present the instructions to the server, who hopefully reported them to the cooks, who hopefully obeyed. Kathleen recently found some help from another expat who has been living in Cambodia for a couple of years who also has celiac. Kathleen and her sat down for an hour or so and she gave Kathleen all sorts of tips on what local dishes to avoid, where to eat out, and even some recipe ideas. Thank God for those willing to help out!

One of the ideas we had before arriving was to avoid eating meat, which could be riskier based on how it’s butchered, cleaned, and prepared. But we quickly found that almost all restaurants have meat in every dish, so that plan has been harder to follow through on when we eat out. We have yet to cook meat at home these past 10 days since having our own kitchen. It is definitely nice to be able to prepare and cook our own food. It gives us much more confidence that we can stay healthy for our language studies!

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Learning our vegetable names in Khmer class

We were also really curious how much money food would cost. After about 2 weeks in, we are starting to learn the value of different products. Eating out, we’ve found most meals cost between 4 and 6 dollars. Some restaurants serve both Khmer and western food, but there isn’t a big price difference between the two options. An eating out experience we have yet to dabble in is eating street food. Colin bought a grilled corn on the cob for about 30 cents, which was a bit tough and not quite as sweet as what he is used to back in Canada. But other than that, we haven’t tried any street food. There is so much more to learn!

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Colin checks out some cashews at the market

To buy food for home, there are 2 main options: stores and markets. Markets have the energy. There are the smells, the sights, the noises, the crowds, the haggling, the characters, the heat, and the language practice. At this point in our transition journey, we dabble only a little in the markets. So far we have only bought fruit, mostly because the fruit is usually on the outer edges, and it looks so good that we can’t resist. The mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and oranges we buy at the market taste great! As far as price, we still have no idea what the going rate is for most things. I usually try to bargain for a lower price, but they don’t budge. At this stage, I ask myself, “would I pay this price in Canada?” My mind churns for a second as I recall the price of pineapples back in Whitehorse, and then I say, “2 pineapples pre-cut for $1? I’ll take them!” This is where knowing what is local comes into play. You can buy apples here, but they don’t grow anywhere near Cambodia. The Chinese ones are the cheapest, but the price for apples from Canada, USA, or New Zealand is outrageous. We ask ourselves, why would we pay $4 for 2 apples when we can buy 3 mangoes for only $1? We have a feeling we won’t be eating apples for a few years…

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These guys are about to go under the knife to become a tasty stir fry

Then there are the stores. If the markets have the energy, the stores have the comfort. They are air-conditioned, the prices are all marked (no haggling involved), and usually there are less crowds, depending on the time of day and how narrow the aisles are, of course. If markets win for freshness, stores win for selection. Some of the bigger stores have food from all over the world, even Doritos made in the USA, Dutch gouda, and Canadian maple syrup! We are still figuring out where to buy food and how much to pay, but we’re on our way.

This is all we can say about food for now. We know there is so much we don’t know, and it will be interesting to look back on this post months and years from now when eating here is second nature. For now, we remind ourselves to seek the most important food, God’s Word:

Deuteronomy 8:3: “so he made you go hungry. Then he gave you manna, a kind of food that you and your ancestors had never even heard about. The Lord was teaching you that people need more than food to live—they need every word that the Lord has spoken.” CEV

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Our last seconds in the Canadian winter air

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Traffic view from the seat of a tuktuk

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Our Whitehorse memento

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Khmer has 33 consonants and 58 vowels

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At the entrance to our great school, Gateway to Khmer