Regular life is special
02.15.2010 - 03.01.2010
It has been a while since I wrote a blog. It is still an amazing experience to be here. Everyday I see something, read something or experience something that is new, moving, appalling, beautiful, sad making and often in very quick succession. I notice that I need a lot of time for reflection, often when I go to my regular places for internet, mango shakes or lunch/dinner. I do sometimes write in my diary, but mole many things in my head.
As for the title of this blog. One of the first Once in a lifetime ceremony was a ceremony that is held when people are getting older. It is called " Buyn patcha Buyn" (I don't think that's spelled right), or the "four gifts ceremony". The monks dedicate this celebration to the ancestors, ask them to take the gifts, and ask to "say all good things for the future life" of the celebrants. One of the 2nd year students invited all the students and the faculty to come this ceremony, which resembles a wedding ceremony. We drove after a whole day workshop for about 1.5-2 hours, outside of Phnom Penh to participate. The party was in full swing, with many tables and chairs covered to the floor with golden-colored satin- material. One pays for the visit. Everyone does. One also pays for the monks, when the basket gets past. This ceremony (and many others) lasts 2 days. They build party tents for these occasions -- you see them at the sidewalks a lot -- for weddings and funerals and other ceremonies. The colors of the tents are different, so it is clear what ceremony will be held. It is wedding season, so a lot of party's. (One of my colleagues is getting married on May 9th, so I will be observing a whole ceremony before I leave!) The women are all in long skirts and white blouses of various levels of elegance and make, from simple to all fancy and richly embroidered with lace and sequin. Tables are set for 10 guests, with bottles of water, and as soon as guests arrive, food, -rice and soup - and banana's etc. Lots of family and friends. At night it is a social event, like our wedding parties!! Then is always dancing, but we left. The students were disappointed, so we promised that we will organize a dancing party for either Mara'(Australian volunteer who has been here 1.5 years, or me!) The parents welcomed us with hugs and everything always feels so warm and inviting. I wish my Khmer was better!!
The interesting part for me was the 'Buddhist' part of the ceremony. There is always a stage... an altar... with a depiction of the Buddha, this one looked very feminine and the halo around the face was a neon colored off/on light. Very colorful (see picture). Of course flowers,(folded lotus flowers),(see picture) candles, platters with bananá's and other offerings are in front of the altar. Along the side of the tent were depictions of the Buddha' s life. Then there was a table on the side with "the four gifts" for the monks and ancestors. (see picture).
There were 4 packages, all richly embroidered, with new robes for the monks, 4 new pillows for them, and four big packages with new cooking tools, gas burners, woks, and other tools. These presents would go to monks of two pagoda"s. Everything was quite elaborate. The monks were to come the next morning, so I missed the ceremony. Would have loved to see it. Then there was also a table they called the Hindu table, very busy with candles and lots of flowers, and offerings. A different sense of worship. I was so glad I went to participate in this event.
In a later conversation with Lo, my colleague here, he explained that the well-being of the living, is very much related to the well-being of the ancestors. When people get sick, they offer to the ancestors, because their sickness is related to the ancestors not being at peace. When they suffer from a rape, or being robbed, that is related to their karma, it might be that one of your ancestors wanted to curse you, or punish you because of having committed a social immorality or other 'bad thing' in a past life or this life. (I heard about this in my dissertation as well, one of my respondents told me she was robbed and that likely happened because she might have robbed someone in her past life). These beliefs are still very present here.
The second "Once in a lifetime" event was the Royal University of Phnom Penh graduation, where the prime minister Hun Sen did the graduation speech. All dignitaries (foreign ambassadors, the whole council of ministers, and University Administrators sat on the stage. In front, at a table, Hun Sen, by himself. There was a podium, but only used by him. The other speakers: Minister of Education, President of the University, spoke from a podium on the floor. I sat with the faculty, bought an obligatory white blouse and Khmer skirt and went with a colleague in a dark suit.(see picture, hope you see our heads!) We sat there from 7.30-8.30 to wait for the ceremony to start. Talks for 30 minutes, keynote by the prime minister was about 2 hours!! He is quite a speaker and performer. He singled out individual ministers for comments or praise, they stood and bowed, he even singled out the Australian Ambassador. He promised the librarians of the Hun Sen (RUPP) library a pay raise and offered 40 new computers under big applause! I didn't understand a word of it, but was quite fascinated to watch him perform and I was glad I went.
I am reading a book, called "The Gate"(2002), written by the only foreign survivor of a Khmer camp: Francois Bizot. He was captured and let free in 1971, and was under the control of Douch, the later head of the Tuol Sleng prison and responsible for thousands of deaths and tortures events. (Douch is now one of the Khmer Rouge accused in the Khmer Rouge tribunal) As many hostages do, Bizot speaks quite fondly of the man, despite being shackled and observing lots of pain and desperation and deprivation of others in the camp. He receives 'small mercies", like condensed milk, opportunities to bathe, and it sounds like classical 'trauma bonding'. He makes an analysis that is very pertinent for a historical view of what happened here in Cambodia. He is certainly very uncomplimentary about the Americans, who were very unprepared and arrogant and he speaks about the shameless support of the US (CIA) to put Lon Nol in power, which was definitely a precursor to the horrors of the Pol Pot era. And than the bombings! Cambodia still suffers from landmines and cluster bombs remnants from the incredible air bombings in that era. But he does'nt spare others. He talks especially about the European left, who were very anti-American at the time, and refused to see the horrors of Paul Pot, while even the United Nations accepted the Khmer Rouge to represent the country of Kampuchea!! He also writes about the last days tense and unbearable days in the French embassy with thousands of others, when the Khmer Rouge took over the power, and only people with European passports were allowed to be there. All those who were given immunity inside a foreign had to be turned away!
I was still in Amsterdam in April 1975 and cannot remember very well that time and what the reaction was, but I am sure that we also were glad that Lon Nol with all the corruption was overthrown. We also were truly enamored with China and Moa Tse Tung, and the Khmer Rouge followed his lead with a peasant revolution, thus I think that there was hardly any criticism on the left. I like to go back to some documentation centers and see what the groups I was involved with at the time, wrote about this. I left for Papua New Guinea in November 1975 and know for sure, that I received little international news at that time. I sure have done some soul searching about this. On of my conclusions is that history sometimes proves our allegiances wrong! Or that perhaps the allegiances were right, but when the supported groups/people came to power, the real situation changed into horrors unforeseen for the citizens of these countries! Quite humbling to think about these things.
I went to see a documentary: "Terror's Advocate: What is wrong with Jaques Verges (2007), the French defender of Khieu Samphan, another defendant in the Khmer Tribunal (ECCC). He was born in Algiers, had a French father and a Vietnamese mother and was fiercely in support of the Algerian freedom fighters. He personally had suffered from exclusion and colonialism. His first defense as a young lawyer was to defend a woman who planted a bomb in a big restaurant/bar, and saved her (and others) from the death penalty. Later he defended Palestianians, and more anticolonial groups. Later he It was a very long movie and after 2.5 hours we were still not in Cambodia and I nodded off many times, so I went home. Never saw the end and the defense issues of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge defendant. A movie that sure plays with the observer's sentiments of sympathy and disgust!!
On my way home I saw the raw survival strategies that are appalling! In the dark, next to the market close to my street, are heaps of stinky garbage, the leftovers of the market stalls who sell meat, fruits and vegetables and lots of other things. People, without flashlights, are digging with their bare hands through this stinky filth to find something they can use or sell. Sad night life scene, but real for many people here.
On a more pleasant and entertaining note. I went to a day long cooking class, held on a third floor roof kitchen. It was delightful. A group of ten people (including two families who brought each two kids) and made 4 dishes. We made Khmer fried spring rolls, from shredded taro root and shredded carrots. We made a famous Khmer dish (curried fish, with coconut cream ) called Fish Amok. This is a delicious dish, but quite elaborate to make. We pounded for hours to make our own curry (lemongrass, kalangal, fresh turmeric, garlic, shallots, zest of kaffir lime and red chillies), then one adds raw pieces of fish. This dish is steamed in a neatly folded banana leaf basket, then covered with thick coconut cream and decorated (see picture). In the afternoon we made a banana-flower salad, and a desert: sticky rice with mango and shredded coconut. Delicious! I could not eat all my amok and took it home, but gave it to a hungry homeless child on the way home. Must have been quite a treat!! If anyone of your ever travels to Phnom Penh, or elsewhere in Cambodia, taking a full or half day cooking course is a delightful activity!
I also visited the Royal Palace for the first time with a resident, Kak, from RISC, the returnee group home I visit every week. He rarely gets out of the area he lives in, and had a good time, seeing the Palace. The palace is part of a large complex, not all accessible to the public, but walking in the gardens and visiting the exhibition halls with royal clothes, and other object, seeing Pagoda's, and exhibition halls filled with all kind of Buddha's is quite delightful. In the garden are topiari 's, and a couple of them are in the shape of an elephant. Kak liked that the best. The picture I made from him in front of one, did not come out!! We also bought a painting of a river scene for their house, went to the Russian market and had lunch together.
We bought ashtrays, with elephants, in the market and I bought him a new t-shirt. I heard his 'life story', and as returnee he is literally alone in the world. Does not know where his family is, and does not have a family here. All he has is the returnee place where he lives. So sad! We now email and I wish I could do something more for him.
It is slowly getting hotter here! When I bike, my face gets red, while I am not going very fast, and in the middle of the day
the sweat drips from my face ( all over my body)!! I do bike to school and other far-away-places, and when going in the early morning I am sometimes surprised by unreal scenes at the river. I saw the most beautiful sunrise one morning, with dreamy boats floating on the sunfilled rays on the river! So beautiful! (see picture) To go to work, I also sometimes get rides from other faculty members, but prefer to walk around in a large area in my neighborhood. I do that quite often, walk along the river, stop for a mango shake or lime soda at a terras, and read the paper.
One of the visits we made this week was to the International Justice Mission. An American faith based organization that is involved in rescuing underage prostitutes (as young as 10years old) from brothels, kareoki bars, or so-called quest houses. The IJM works closely with the police who does the rescuing. Then they send an aftercare worker with a care package, and a referral to a shelter. They work with other organizations to either reunite with the family or if that is impossible they find an alternative and work on schooling and employment. Some of you might remember the article in the Nation about this organization last year, but what I heard was pretty good!
Well, today I will go to the gym and do some weight lifting and walking on a stationary bike. It is the only place I get a hot shower once in a while, good for washing hair!
All the best everyone,
to be continued,