Monday, April 20, 2009

Ten ways to cool down your kids in Phnom Penh - (Asia Life April column)

As we brave the hottest months of the year in Cambodia, Georgie Treasure-Evans offers ten ways to help both you and your children keep cool in the city.

We all know it is coming, yet every year we still cannot quite believe just how much it is possible to sweat in this city in April and May. No matter how breezy our Tuk-Tuk, or how cold our car, by the time we have made it inside the school gates any pride we ever had in our personal appearance has long since melted away, never mind our ability to be calm and forgiving with our kids. Red faces, wet hair clamped to foreheads, tempers rising... Parenting with kids in Phnom Penh loses its appeal somewhat at this time of year. Here a few ideas for how to get ourselves and our children through the hot season.

The most obvious way to cool down is, of course, to go for a swim. Phnom Penh has many child-friendly pools. But if you are in need of a change of scenery and a little adventure I recommend you brace the Water Park. Although the health and safety standards may not be as high as many of the hotel pools in the city, your kids will have a lot more fun! There are baby pools with fountains and mini-climbing structures, a wave pool, a lazy river and tubes, curly wurly water slides for the more daring and, what might possibly be the longest pool in Phnom Penh so parents can sneak off for a few laps of their own. There is also a fun fair with a range of rides suitable for all ages. The pools are mostly un-shaded though so beware of the sun!

And when the effort of applying sun cream and enforcing the rule of sunhats and UV suits all seems too much, a trip to an air-conditioned salon for some nail art or massage is a great alternative. Let your children try a hair wash, head or foot massage. The chance to escape the heat and relax will really improve everyone’s mood. If they are not into it this, you could always let the staff take them off your hands for a bit while you receive a bit of pampering of your own.

Another place to go where your parental input is minimal is the wonderful, shady Le Jardin. Of all the child-friendly cafés in town I find this the most comfortable, beautiful and relaxing. There are trees to climb, a great play area and sand pit, the kids are allowed to run free and burn off some energy, and, crème de la crème, there is a gate on the door to keep in wandering toddlers. Of course there is also ice cream, which becomes obligatory eating unless you are prepared to see your child suffer the misery of being the only child in the place not allowed one. But you could balance it out with their delicious and cooling cold cucumber and feta soup, which many kids love.

One of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon in the heat is to cancel all social plans and just hang out at home with the children. Just organising my daughters’ social life requires more energy than I can muster, let alone carrying out the plans. Staying home is often much more relaxing for everyone, but it does require a few essentials to make it work, especially if you were once into cooking and crafts but the idea of heating up the house with the oven or battling with paper and glue under high powered fans is now out of the question. In the hot season it requires ice cream or lollies, body painting outside under a tree, a hose pipe and a paddling pool big enough for at least two adults.

The way it works is: you kill an hour or so making ice cream together. My most child-friendly ice cream recipe could not be simpler: Just mix equal amounts of condensed milk and either yoghurt and cream (or any combination of the two) in a bowl and then add either lemon juice and rind to taste, or raspberries is good too. Children love watching the cream thicken when you add the lemon, it’s like magic. And then you can break up the afternoon with regular trips to the freezer to inspect and stir.

Healthier options which are also fun include making ice-lollies out of watered down juice or even better, use orange flavoured Royal D electrolyte. Our bodies are 77% water and when we dehydrate we easily become irritable and snappy.

If all goes according to plan you get to spend the rest of the afternoon sitting back and watching the kids cover themselves with paint, wash off under the hose and splash about in the paddling pool, safe in the knowledge that when things get out of hand there is always the lure of ice cream to make them listen!

If all this feels like too much hard work the heat is always a great excuse to lie low and read books, especially when your child stops napping but you still need that quiet time in the day. If you want to resist the TV option, try cooling down one room, and lying down in bed and reading all your favourite stories for a while. When you run out of good books the Reading Room on St 240 has some lovely books and games and is a peaceful refuge to curl up and spend time with your kids.

When you need to get on with real life I recommend making an activity out of your weekly supermarket shop. During the day they are cool and quiet and the child-friendly nature of Cambodia means that unlike in the West, the combination of supermarkets + kids does not = tantrums. Try giving them a shopping list and letting them loose in the aisles as they try to find all the things you need. If they still have energy to burn you could take them up to one of the many air-conditioned soft play areas in the main supermarkets in Phnom Penh.

A really perfect way to end off a sweaty day with the kids is to take a sun-set ride in a cyclo down some quiet Phnom Penh streets. There is something about a cyclo ride that instantly calms the mind, body and soul. The shaded seat at the front is just big enough to sit back comfortably and wrap your arms around your child. The breeze, as you move silently through the streets, makes this much-needed physical closeness bearable sometimes for the first time all day. All irritation and petty squabbles are soothed away by the gentle, healing rhythm of the cyclo. A nice route is to do the length of St 21, and take a walk in the peaceful gardens of Wat Svay Propei.

If none of this works for you I have one more tip that every parent should know about –it is called the Sitali breath, or the Really Cool Breath as it is better known. Perfect this with your kids and you can lower soaring temperatures and even fevers. Stick out your tongue and curl it as much as you can. Then ‘suck’ up the air as though your tongue were a straw, and breathe out through your nose. Do this for a few minutes and your tongue will feel cool. It is very detoxifying so at first your tongue will taste bitter. When it tastes sweet you know it is working. Good luck!

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

The first rains

The first rains are here, bang on schedule after Khmer New Year. The temperature has dropped, a breeze is making doors bang and everything has gone dark. I love the rains in Phnom Penh. We've been curled up on the sofa under the outside canopy watching frogs take over the garden, the girls jumping into my arms at every thunder bolt. We can't hear ourselves think let alone have a conversation.

The rains in PP make me stop being busy and live in the moment. They are conducive to all things domestic. Bean stew, baking cakes, blasting classical music to compete with the drumming on the roof, doing jigsaws and sorting out photos. I imagine that everyone in an office this afternoon is finding a reason to rush home, put their PJs on and do the same. We are going to make scones and then draw around our bodies and make height charts. How much more domestic can you get than that?

I just hope the roof doesn't flood...

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My children are ignoring me... surely every parent's dream

I am in heaven. My dreams of the perfect at-home parenting experience have finally come true. I have spent the last half hour sitting reading my book and drinking tea while the girls have been playing in the paddling pool. Now I have snuck off to write as they are absorbed in a game of restaurants. Bliss. I get to be with my two favourite people, watch them, love them and soak them up, without actually having to do anything that I do not want to. It is not that I do not like to play Princesses and Mermaids... but as fascinating as it is, I am quite happy to have a day off now and then.

How did this happen? How can it be that my tiny baby Bella woke up this morning and brought all of her clothes to me including a pair of Jemima's pants which she had half put on herself. "No nappy Mummy. Pants please".

OK, she will be two in July and is not so tiny. She poos on the loo and expresses all basic needs in English (well we understand her), but she is still my baby. She breastfeeds like a new born and still has short baby curls (I say still.. I mean finally). Now she is ignoring me and wants to play with her big sister undisturbed. I was actually banned from the paddling pool because I would "stop them from splashing and having fun". Bella confirmed this vehemently: "No Mummy. No swim! Mummy go INSIDE!"

I know it is only so long before this display of independent, peaceful sisterliness turns into a chaos of snatching and squabbling and the usual demands for my attention, but still, what a relief! Not just the me time, but because after a morning spent discussing the pros and cons of different approaches to parenting and schooling at an impromptu play date, I came home feeling somewhat stressed. I lost perspective. I forgot what I thought, and why I thought it anyway.

I woke up this morning my usual self: a mother who believes that while a few hours each day of learning through play in a happy school environment are wonderfully beneficial for both child and parent, essentially the most important thing for children under the age of six is lots of time at home (assuming the home is a happy, healthy place to be), both for one-to-one parent and child activities and also for unstructured, unsupervised play that allows imaginations to roam wild. Having almost definitely decided to stay in Cambodia for one more year in order to delay Jemima from starting school at the tiny age of 5 years 0 months, I came home at lunchtime asking James if we should put Jemima in full-time 8a-4 school next term, and whether we should start her on music lessons.

A few hours of making necklaces, dressing up and watching them play, ignored by me, and ignoring me, has put my world to rights again. They have the rest of their life for institutions and long hours away from home. Now is their time for precious, unpressurised, total absorption in worlds of fantasy and adventure.

I think...

Share your thoughts and experiences please, preferably in comforting agreement as we can't afford the international school fees in Cambodia anyway, but all opinions welcome :-).

As I thought, things are melting down out there.. time to go.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The first breath

Hmmm, writers block. I am tired, breastfeeding my nearly two-year-old Bella like a new born and wishing for 48 hours in each day so I can do all the mothering, teaching, writing and everything else that I want to achieve in a week. All I can think of is to share a list of all the things I would like to write about in depth if I had the time, energy and inspiration. Perhaps this will be the first step.

1) Why was it that on Sunday morning by the beach in a lovely little hotel café, during breakfast, not one of the twenty or so westerners was able to do anything other than scowl and grimace at me as Bella screamed the house down in one of her favourite meal-time tantrums? (Only when she is ill, which she has been for two weeks now, with a stinking cold and cough. Mostly she laughs her way through it but meal times are her favourite time to yell. She refuses to let me sit down... however slowly and sneakily I lower myself to my chair, in a desperate attempt at a quick slurp of tea or bite of toast before my time is up, she will not stand for it.. so I have to instead.) Ok, their peaceful breakfast was disturbed, but the looks of judgment and disapproval were quite frankly uncalled for. It reminded me of going back to Britain, where kids should be mostly seen and not heard, and preferably neither after 7 o’clock at night. If it had been my first time round, with Jemima, I would have gone away feeling like a terrible mother, for their looks insinuated that I was just that. But, it being second time round, I just went away thinking they were terrible fellow humans instead.

2) I spent four days at a very intense yoga workshop in Bangkok two weeks ago, with Bella and a hired babysitter. I was up at 4am meditating on and off until 7 at night for three consecutive days and it was quite amazing. Bella loved the whole adventure and despite my being mostly absent, I loved having time with her alone, taking the plane, walking in the garden, feeding the fish... it reminded me of all the time I had alone with Jemima, sacred space just to get to know one child in their element without anyone interrupting them or influencing them in any way.

3) On this workshop we did a rebirthing meditation that enabled us to relive our first breath. The leader talked about the significance of the quality of the first breath and how it influences the way we view life. E.g. What do you see written here?

Whether you see opportunities nowhere or opportunities now here reflects your outlook on life, and this is partially determined by our first breath according to yogic and other philosophies.

It got me thinking, well crying really. While Bella came into this world without drugs, her eyes wide open and smiling, latching on and breastfeeding within seconds of her birth, Jemima was born stoned on Pethidine and unable to breathe. She was whisked away to a brightly lit table and a suction tube was shoved down her throat. And here I am teaching prenatal yoga and encouraging conscious pregnancy. And it is true that Bella is always happy, easy-going, and generally sees the bright side of everything most days, while Jemima’s glass is half empty much of the time.

Maybe this is just a phase? Jemima was very like Bella at her age after all. But I am struggling at the moment with the fact that while Bella, at 20 months, already says ‘thank you’ spontaneously and uses the sweetest intonations and facial expressions when she asks for things (they make her sound so polite!), Jemima at four and a half still says “I want! Get me this!” and even when the table is laid with all of her favourite things, instead of saying “Yey, peanut butter!” she will ask for whatever she wants in a way which suggests no one was ever going to allow her it. Ok, not all the time, but lately this has been her dominant nature. Her teachers say she is lovely at school still, so perhaps I should give her a break.

Of course it is also possible that she gets it from me, for as a child I was always sulking about being the youngest, seeking attention etc. But I am not like this now (apart from family gatherings where I regress frighteningly quickly). Perhaps it is because she too is fighting some virus? Or adapting to the stifling humidity as we enter the hot season? Even so, it is driving me crazy!

I am being as yogic as I can about it though. I try to resist calling her a spoilt brat and am instead gently brainwashing her with nightly meditations where we sing mantras such as: “I am beautiful! I am bountiful! I am bliss!” and then I add “I am thankful! I am blessed! I am so lucky!” So far I have managed to stop myself from continuing, “I am so lucky not to be a street child, not to be foraging for food on the rubbish dump, not to be sold by my mother into the sex-trade, tra la la la”. It doesn’t fit with the tune anyway. And finally, feeling bad about my day’s resentment and judgment, when I know as her mother I should accept and affirm her, I get her to sing “I am! I am! I am! Just as I am!”, in the hope that it will make up for my maternal failings.

I’ll let you know if I see any progress!

Hey, this worked! Now I feel like getting my book out and editing it and self-publishing it right away!

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