A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: golieda

Many cultural events

Still a lot to learn

semi-overcast 99 °F

Greetings all,

On April 20, the rainy season announced itself with a formidable storm. Thunder, lightning and not just rain, but pouring rain! Luckily I drove with Nika, my colleague, who dropped me of in front of my house. I admired her driving through this heavy weather! I had put on my rain poncho in the car, unlocked the gate, locked it again and ran upstairs (3rd floor, outside stairs). I stayed pretty dry but my backpack was soaked in 5 minutes! It was quite a show, but it was over in 2 hours and then the sky cleared and life goes on. However, in no time the streets had flooded, it seems to be especially a problem in the beginning of the season. Despite a newly finished 22 million drainage system, the drains were blocked with garbage, sand and other to be flushed out debris!! At some places, as the paper reported, “the murky floodwater was knee deep”, but more places were somewhere less high. Instead of biking to RISC (the place where I volunteer) which is about a 30 minutes ride, I took a tuktuk after it cleared. That appeared to be wise, since we drove through streets that were flooded high and even had to turn around to prevent the worst! I don’t leave my house anymore without my poncho and my computer in a pretty heavy plastic bag in my backpack!
Officials say that after the third big rain, the sediment will have washed away and floods will be no more problem!! We will see!
Since the season began, by April 26, 13 people have already been struck and killed by lightning in the country, and much damage to houses in some provinces has been reported. Since then, it rains regularly, my apartment floods from leakage from the roof, and I working with pans!! I seem to be caught on my bike, going home more then once and get really soaking wet! It actually feels good after a very hot day!!

Two memorable events happened in Phnom Penh.
“Bridges: Dialogues towards a culture of Peace.”
On April 21 I attended the last meeting of the “Bridges: Dialogues towards a culture of Peace.” Earlier I saw Oliver Stone speak and Ashkenazy perform in this series. The speaker this time was Dr Jose Ramos-Horta, the president of Timor Leste and the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. His speech was remarkable. He said that he did not believe that in his lifetime there would be peace, i.e. the absence of war. Despite the existence of the UN, millions of people have died since WWII, yet, he said that if each of us worked to eliminate the root causes of violence: prejudice, suspicion and ignorance we would get a long way towards peace in the world. He thought education was the key to plant seeds of peace and tolerance, and that includes “being safe from domestic violence, bullying in schools and having safe streets”. He elaborated on each of these points. I have rarely heard a men of that caliber include domestic violence in a speech about international peace making. He talked about accepting immigrants and talking to his police force , --who were wondering what to do with illegal immigrants,--saying: ”Whenever there is a human being landing on our shores looking for help, we will help them”. This is not talk we hear in the US or ‘fortress Europe” at this point! Especially not in Arizona it seems!
While Indonesia occupied his country,-- for I believe 21 years and killed 200.000 people of the 800.000 inhabitants,-- he claimed that not one Indonesian was killed. Indonesia left through negotiation, and Timor Leste is now very well supported by Indonesia. He did not want an International Tribunal, yet a type of Truth and Reconcilliation Committee, -in which both Indonesia and Timor Leste participated- found the Indonesian army guilty of atrocities. While he is not in favor of intrusive international verification mechanisms, (also in the climate change debates) he gave many examples of his great contribution to bilateral and international negotiations and peacemaking in many areas of the world. His view on China and how to get China to cooperate in the climate change debate sounds like he consids the traditional super powers, --USA and Europe—off base with their pushy approaches! Interesting to hear a very different perspective on these issues!
(Ironically, the Cambodian Daily on the same day of reporting his speech, ran an article about the widespread corruption scandals at the ministerial and lower levels of government in Timor Leste!)

40 years after the Cambodian civil war
On April 22 I attended a meeting organized by journalists who covered the Vietnam and Cambodian conflicts in the 1960’s and 1970’s. About 25 former correspondents and war photographers were in town to honor the deaths of all journalists killed in the civil war (Lon Nol regime, 1970-1975), and those who died after 1975 when the communists (Khmer Rouge) took over. (37 journalists died between 1970 and 1975, and 31 Cambodian journalists were killed during Pol Pot’s regime, (1975-1979). The journalists organized and attended a Buddhist ceremony at the place in Kampong Speu province, where offerings were made and the names were read of all the fallen journalists by Elizabeth Becker, who covered Cambodia for the Washington Post. A Bodhi tree was planted and widows of fallen Cambodian colleagues were comforted. They had a couple of other remembrances as well. From the newspaper reports about these events, they were quite moving for all those involved. It seemed that the journalists themselves needed a final closure of this important time in their lives, in which others did not survive!
At the discussion evening itself, I again was impressed with the incredible suffering the Cambodian people endured. The 5 years of the Lon Nol regime, leading up to the Khmer Rouge regime were violently atrocious! And the fighting in some provinces really did not stop until 1998. Sylvana Foa, who was expelled after she reported in 1973 that the US Embassy was directing the bombing campaign, spoke at the discussion meeting, as well as a couple of other big name and big international former newspaper reporters. They spoke of the courage and support given by their Cambodian colleagues, as well as the brutality and horrors of war. There was an impressive and disturbing war photo exhibition of the 1970-1975 civil war. I thought while watching: If you’re not a pacifist before seeing those, you have to be one after seeing those pictures! The Phnom Penh Post published a big insert with the same pictures in its 22 April edition, and Tim Page, a war photographer, wrote : “The best war image automatically becomes an anti-war image; photographs have the power to create peace”. One only wishes. The meeting was set up for about 75 people to attend, and there must have been 300!

Khmer wedding
One of the instructors at the school of Social Work got married and I was invited not just to the reception and dinner, but also the monks blessing ceremony on Saturday and the ceremonies and breakfast on Sunday morning. In Cambodia it is the custom that couples consult an expert to make sure the date chosen suits the ancestors. The birth dates of the couple is shared and it is up to the consultant to tell the date. Sometimes he tells couples, you have to get married in one month or wait four more years!! Imagine the hurry to get a wedding together in a month. And this is not just a location for a ceremony and a dinner/party!! Yet, this happened to a brother of a colleague of mine. (Her other brother refused to marry at the day that was suggested and did it in his own way. Not sure what the consequences in the ‘heavens’ are for that!!)
The wedding ceremonies lasts for 2-3 days, sometimes up to a week. (If you want to read more about the ceremonies, just google ‘Khmer weddings’ and you get a whole program! )
My account is from what I was told and remember, and I am sure depending who you talk to, there are different explanations, or just none. It is the ceremony and ritual that counts!!
For the wedding occasion a big (pink and white) tent is build as an extension of the house of the bride and some neighbors houses, in which ceremonies and meals take place. The chairs are all covered with gold colored covers. Often an open air kitchen is set up right next to it. The bride and bridegroom have about 7-10 different sets of clothes, all traditional and the colors match. It is very elaborate and colorful. I borrowed a Khmer skirt, and for the reception/dinner at Sunday night a fancy traditional top. (see story below and picture!). On Saturday afternoon I attended the monk’s blessing. The ceremony is only for the family and is held in the front room of the house, for this occasion set up as wedding room. It is all set up with a lot of flowers and ‘gold’. There are carpets on the floor, places for 4 monks, a golden quilt and pillows in front of it for the bride and groom. Everybody sits on the floor. The bride and groom in a traditional costume, flanked by their parents kneel before the monks who chant for half about half an hour in Pali. Beautiful! I really liked it and could listen to it for hours!! The old women in the party all know the chants by heart. Everyone has their folded hands under their chin, and bow many times when the chants call for it. I was the only ‘barang’ there, but was glad I got to participate. When the chanting is over, first the parents of the groom offer the gift (big box, golden with red bow) to one monk, then the parents of the bride to the second monk, and then the bride and groom each a box to the two remaining monks. (There is money, food, oils, jossticks, candles etc in the gift boxes). The whole ceremony lasts about 45 minutes. Then dinner is served.

The next morning the festivities started at 6.45. There is a ceremonial leader, achar, (also wearing different outfits about every 10 minutes! ) who directs the couple and the family about what to do in all the ceremonies . The morning starts with a long parade of the groom and his parents, under two parasols, and all the guests who in pairs carry gifts on gold platters, which are handed to them. There must have been at least 100 people! The parade is in the street until we come to the big wedding tent. A representative of the bride receives the groom and his parents with ceremonial song. The gifts are all prepared by the wedding organizers and there is a formula of which gifts should be offered: fruits, meats, noodles, cabbages, soft drinks, even pieces of raw meat, all wrapped in ceram wrap, in certain quantities. They all get to be put in the wedding room on the floor, where there will be a ceremony of the family to ‘verify’ that the gifts are correct. Then there is an acceptance ceremony, and the food is offered to the ancestors.
After the procession, the guests sit in the tent around tables to eat breakfast: soup, rice, and a lot of fruit. After that the ceremonies take place in the wedding room.
Only me, and a couple of other people looked on. There was a ceremony to exchange the dowry and the rings! All with parents and bride and groom, lots of instructions of the achar, and lots of bows and smiles!! In the next ceremony, the couple is introduced to the ancestors and so becomes part of the larger families in the heavens, for protection, good luck, happiness and fortune.
This couple also did a Chinese ceremony in the wedding tent with an altar, candles, joss sticks, offerings and the burning of gold/silver (paper) for the ancestors!! A bright red dress was worn for that occasion!
Then there is the so-called hair cutting ceremony, where the bride and groom, flanked each by 4 friends, sit in the big tent, parents and family in front of them and guests all around. The ceremony is led by the achar and two singers who do a funny skit about the whole thing. Lots of laughter and audience participation. It is a light-hearted very public ceremony! Then every one goes by (parents first and ceremonially cut a piece of the hair of groom and bride, sprays enormous amounts of hairspray on them and gives their best wishes! After everyone is done, the scissors, with a ring that was “found” in the hair of the bride is offered to the mothers for acceptance and laughter. By that time it was past 11.00 and I left with my colleague and his family, the heat is prohibitive in a tent!!

The afternoon a colleague and I dressed up in my apartment, --for Khmer outfits you need help to ‘button up’ in the back! We had like a teenage party with a make-up box etc. We had a lot of fun!! The evening event was in a ‘wedding complex’, with many wedding venues. Ours was in building “U”, so more than 25 similar places in that complex! This part was the most familiar. An 8 course dinner, delicious with a lot of fish and shrimp, the best fish cakes I have had!, rice and soup. Most of the faculty was there, the women all dressed up, the men very casual! We ate and danced Khmer dances, which I was taught in the process by the dancers! Men and women eagerly dance, a kind of a circle dance. I got quite some ‘eyes’ being dressed up like a Khmer woman! There was the champaign ceremony and the row of friends throwing flowers, like many American weddings. I was so glad I had been invited to the more intimate ceremonies of the event, that was the real fascinating part!

The interesting part to me is that most people when they get married follow all these ceremonial steps, including setting the wedding date, but many do not know the significance of all these events! It is just what you do.

A happy ending!
At last! Men conquered rats! They pretty much got discouraged by the defenses that my landlord finally put in. He filled holes in the ceiling, closets, put a new ‘board’ under the balcony door, so there is not way to sneak in under the door!! I now find one very occasional dropping on the bathroom floor, but that is it!! I can leave my banana’s and mango’s out again, and life is normal!! Those taken for granted little comforts of ordinary living mean something!!

Let me finish with what I experienced as some humorous/hilarious moments: (I’m not sure I can write it like it was funny, but it was very funny at the time!)

1) When you ask the bill in a restaurant in Cambodia you say: “Som git loi”, meaning “please, the bill! “ I have impressed many waiters with my Khmer that way! After I came back from Laos, and my Khmer was somewhat rusty, I said instead: “Git som loi”, and only got a puzzled look on the waiter’s face. I then just said: “the bill please” and that fixed the situation! Later, I checked this with some one, and apparently what I said means, “give me some money please!! “ which explains the puzzled look!

2) One Saturday, I went to the small market close to my street in my exercise clothes, (black pants, tank top and sun-block blouse), bought my vegetables and fruits, and walked by a stall with long, sleeveless lounging dresses. Just the one I had been looking for wearing in my apartment in the heat! It was only $4.00!
I motioned the sales lady to ask whether I could try it on, and she told me yes! I started to unbutton my shirt and nearly took it off, when people started to make noises! Nothing is private in the market and not many ‘barangs’ (foreigners) go into the inner small walkways, so everyone one in other close by stalls, was looking and making noises of surprise and disbelief! Then I understood what the fuss was about. They thought I had nothing underneath and was just undressing! When I understood their concerns, I showed that I had a tank top on, which was reason for big laughter of relief of all the women! Pretty funny moment! Later that night I drank a glass of wine in the bar next door, and the German owner asked me what happened in the market, why everyone was laughing when I was buying something! He had just been there when this was going on, and not waited for the end! I told him what happened, and we had a good laugh again!

3) Tradition Khmer wedding outfits are pretty elaborate and fancy in ways not exactly of my taste! (lots of glitter and embroidered beats and sequines). So, I borrowed a traditional skirt (with golden band woven close to the seam) from Ka, my Cambodian friend. Her top did not fit me, so I had to find something, preferably in gold color.
I decided to go look at a wedding outfit store close to me, which is kind of a shopping plaza. Indeed, there was a whole wedding dress-making department, --with seamstresses and one male tailor working on the floor and sewing machines--, and some pretty elaborate outfits on display. The only English speaking person was a young men, who proceeded to help me. I produced the skirt and he found quite a top! First I hesitated, but then I decided to go all out and luckily learned that you can rent these, which was a relief, because to have one made would be over $100.00. The rent is $15! The one that he picked would look good with the skirt, yet it was a low cut, see through sleeves, made out of elaborately ‘decorated’ lace. One of the young ladies helped me putting it on. These pieces of clothing are quite the outfit: build in cups, very tight and with a row of buttons in the back. No one can get dressed by herself!! Of course even the biggest one he found, did not fit me, my front is too big!! The young men was called into the dressing room and felt me up! (really!) He told me they could make it bigger. “5 minutes! O.k?” The lady went to work, made the thing bigger, including putting in bigger cups!! Try again: Outfit fit o.k. (still tight), but cups did not work. “Ok,” says the guy, who comes back into the dressing room, “we’ll take out the cups, put on your own bra!” That’s what we do. Not surprising, it shows straps and other parts all over. “You need to buy new bra,” says the guy who comes back in. “How would I know that it would work, and not show, if I don’t have the outfit with me” I say, “do you have a bra department?” “No” he says, “but there is one across the plaza”. I asked him whether I could take the outfit, but he is not sure. I ask him whether the lady could go with me, he first says no, later yes. So there we go, I in my long skirt and lace wedding blouse, parading in front of security guards and other onlookers, to the bra store. A new adventure! By now, the whole event strikes me as pretty hilarious. Of course, all 4 ladies in the store, and the one from the dress store, are all involved in my bra-fitting. No bra to be found in my size!! They have to dig deeper, and finally they find one, pretty low and padded, a deal for $10.00! It did not show any straps or other parts under the outfit! We stroll back over the plaza and make the deal! I can come and pick up the outfit the Saturday before the Sunday wedding! Wow, I wish someone would have been with me for this buying spree!!

My stay here will soon come to an end. I am finishing up with my work soon and am planning final conversations with everyone I worked with. I am already getting nostalgic. Still one more trip to Sihanoukville (south of here) during a long weekend of the King’s birthday then the next week on to Vietnam for a final trip in Southeast Asia.

Probably after this one, one more blog!

Posted by golieda 22:13 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Choun por chnam Kmai!

Happy Khmer New Year

Greetings all and Happy Khmer New Year.

Well, this is the second attempt at a blog. Yesterday I spent over four hours in a coffee house that was open at New Year’s and wrote a rather extensive blog about my last 3 weeks. (Of course it was brilliant, funny and instructive!! ) I reported with nostalgia on all the fun visits of family and friends over the last two weeks of March, about our activities, (even consulted the travel books as to be true to the facts). I wrote a rather mixed review of my solitary trip to Laos, as well as about the lonely place Phnom Penh is during the Khmer New Year. I ended with an update on my peaceful co-habitation with my rat , which has ended. After all there is a limit to a one-sided attempt to make it work. I am on the warpath.
I felt pretty good about my effort and I saved it as a draft -as I always do- to edit one more time before I push the ‘publish’ button. However, I must not have pushed hard enough, or whatever happened, but when I tried to retrieve it a couple of hours later sitting in another venue, it had gone where everything mysteriously goes when it disappears…whatever I tried, the draft was no longer there!

Of course I was ‘p.ssed!’ What a loss! Yet, being in a Buddhist country, where everyone mostly accepts calmly things as they are, I at least seem to have learned something. I quickly recovered and thought: “Well, only words! “No problem” as they say here about everything, or in Khmer: ‘min ey dtay’, meaning it’s o.k., it doesn’t matter! I ordered myself another mango shake and went to exercise for hours!! In other words, what you are getting is the second version of this blog! Pictures will be included.

Khmer New Year
Khmer New Year (14-15-16 April, + the weekend) is quite an event here. According to the Cambodia Daily newspaper, over 2/3 (70%) of the citizens of Phnom Penh
(2 million), went “to the province” to celebrate the New Year with relatives in their ‘home’ villages. Some travel long distances, and the bus companies cash in by raising their prices astronomically. As my foot massage lady told me, she usually can go to her province for $5, and now the ticket is $20!! (The bus companies explain it because the price of gasoline has increased, as well as that their buses are empty back from the destinations to Phnom Penh!). The paper had pictures of pick-up trucks so overloaded with cargo and people, that the car was close to invisible. People sit on roofs, stand next to the doors, hang out of the back or somehow the sides, and do not face danger. Motorbikes carry 4 adults and three children, babies included, and you hold you heart. So far, only 17 deaths and 100 wounded were reported at the exit trips.

Since Sunday, (4-11), the city got slowly empty, there is hardly any traffic and everything is closed, even the ‘malls’ and markets have rudimentary stalls, often just the food sections. There is only one tuktuk driver in my street, the fried banana lady and the barber are gone, and my newspaper stall has been closed for days!
All my favorite (cheap) hangouts and eating places have “Closed for Khmer New year, open on Monday” on their gates. Even my internet place is closed. Just the places that cater to mainly ‘barangs’ (white people), as the supermarket, and some terrasses, are open, as well as some restaurants, which are packed with people one rarely sees! Their prices are outrageous for often mediocre dishes! (Usually I pay 3-5 for dinner with a drink, (lime soda, sometimes wine), now my bills are more like $10).
However, it is a joy to walk by the river early morning and hardly anyone is there, or go on an enjoyable bike ride without having your heart jump every second because of a traffic situation! It seems like a fairly normal city!! (Yesterday it was overcast, and I went on my bike every where the whole day! Unusual not to be so hot!!)

Khmer New Year is the lunar New Year, and it is also celebrated at this time in Thailand and Laos, and perhaps more countries. I spend parts of 2 days with Samorn and Ka, at their house in Stung Mean Chey neighborhood, (where I spend the first couple of days of my Cambodia trip), where we went round to relatives to eat, and then we went for an overnight to their house in TaKmao, for a New Year’s barbeque on Thursday with relatives and friends. It was like any big family gathering,(about 20+), yet also distinctly Cambodian. Women arrive and immediately start helping with the cooking, and all seem to know what to do. They laugh a lot and tell stories. Some speak some English and French, but most only Khmer and my Khmer has suffered a lot in the last three weeks of exclusively speaking English!! Made me sad! The men sit together, smoke, play cards and some drink. The ‘barangs’ got served at a different table. I met some people who work at the Tribunal with Samorn and had some interesting conversations. Both of them had lived in the Hague and had worked at the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavie. The food was delicious. Ka had ordered fresh shrimp from Sihanukville, ( a seaside town) which we had picked up at the bus station the day before. We had fresh spring rolls with shrimp, (I love the sauce that comes with it!), and barbequed delicious shrimp and a raw mango salad. All wonderful! There were also chicken legs, meat/shrimp skewers, etc. for the meat eaters. I ate way too much!!
The food stays on the table and we kept eating, despite the millions of flies who also liked it! Covering up the food was only partly successful! Many hammocks around to rest after eating! I had bought some walnut bread from the French restaurant and Gouda cheese for the New Year, and discovered that Titi, Ka’s sister loved it. We served it, Titi was so happy, but the rest of the women, were mixed in their responses. I gave the rest to a delighted Titi, who offered to cook my favorite dishes some day! At a certain point, everyone starts picking up, cleaning, and then we leave! The whole family get-together was a nice interlude in my otherwise solitary week!

About the significance of the New Year.
What follows may not be accurate, because everyone tells me different things, but this is what I know and observed. Many people go the pagoda to offer money and food to the monks and to receive a blessing of good health, prosperity and harmony in the family for the New Year. I went to Wat Botun, close to where I live very early the first day of New Year. An elderly monk was sitting under an overhang and motioned me to come in. The grounds, which are usually pretty ‘messy,’ looked spic and span! There were flowers and a setting with silk covered chairs and tables for a ceremony. The pagoda was still closed, but outside at another entry was another small pagoda, with tables in front with seated monks, an altar with the usual offerings of food and flowers, and monks standing to receive the offerings and give the blessing to devotees. I could not get myself to give money to the monks, after I had walked by many disheveled street people and kids just waking up, probably hungry, and gave my gift (and silent blessing) to a nursing young street woman, who looked desolate after a long night on the street with her baby. It remains hard to see this.

For families, it is also common to give money to older relatives and say a blessing to them and receive their blessing. In the home, everyone has a table, covered with a vase of flowers, banana’s, mango’s, soft drinks (coca cola) and cans of condensed milk. It is for the angel who rides the Tiger of the New Year. (First time I heard the word ‘angel’ in Khmer context!) Even the palace, the place where there is usually a picture of the king, had a big poster depicting the New Year’s angel riding in on a tiger. I asked some people how they know what to put on the table. I got two answers: the tv tells people that the tiger likes milk and banana’s, so that’s what is on the table. Yesterday I asked two young guys in the coffee shop and they said that the monks tell the people, “it is in the Buddhist bible” (also new to me!) they told me. Apparently it is different every year, depending on the animal: monkey, snake, dragon, rat etc. I think that the whole deal is clearly mixed up with Chinese cosmology, but I have to ask my ex-monk tutktuk driver to get his perspective!
People used to throw water (sign of purity in the New Year) on each other, but this is now forbidden by law in public places, and people will be fined when they are seen to do it! In Phnom Penh there was increased police presence to watch that, as well as for crime prevention and traffic infractions (like overloaded vehicles!)

Visitors
How fun it was to have Fred, Anneke and Vincent visit! I am so glad that they could see for themselves a tiny slice of my life, met my friends and some of the faculty I work with. We stayed in very nice hotels, both in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and were joined at times by our good friends David (Urbana, Ill) and son Will (Brisbane, Australia), and Chris (San Francisco) in Siem Reap. In Siem Reap we saw many temples, with of course Angkor Wat as the most known one, but we also saw the oldest temples, the Roluos, all built in or before the 9th century. They have beautiful masonry, but also exquisite stone carvings. One of the temples had a working monastery where we talked at great length to a young eager monk who taught in the little school at the monastery. We gave him money for school books for his students.
( In my lost blog I did a more complete overview, but I will not now. Also I described some of the temples in my January blog).
We also ate, at many establishments in the market area where all the tourists hang out: we samples many versions of the famous Fish amok, Khmer curry, green papaya/mango salads, some Thai food, and drank of course the superb Lao beer! At 50 cents a glass for Happy hour at the riverside was a great daily ‘habit’ to celebrate the great times together!

In Phnom Penh, Karen and David and son Henri, from Spokane visited for a couple of days after their fabulous trip to Burma/Myanmar. We enjoyed visiting the palace, walked a lot to see the sites, markets, and street life, ate at my favorite hangouts, and made a river tour at sunset, which was fun, but no gorgeous sunset as I sometimes see.
We also went to Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum, where 17.000 enemies of the Khmer Rouge, (intellectuals, teachers, educated people, former Lon Nol government workers and those of their own ranks who were suspected of being CIA informants or traitors) were interrogated and tortured, made to suffer tremendously and then brought to another place Choen Ek (killing fields) to be bludgeoned to death. Only 7 survived. It is hard to take and comprehend. Just like one woman in the documentary we saw said: “ I understand life in a family, I understand love between husband and wife, I understand……., but I cannot understand this!” Choen Ek is usually the next place people visit, but we all thought we had enough reminders of unspeakable cruelties inflicted on other human beings. We did not go, but had a wonderful lunch in the Bodhi Tree restaurant across the street which lifted our spirits.
Fred,+ A/V met Samorn, Ka and Davi my Cambodian friends at a wonderful dinner in the Khmer Kitchen,(we forgot to take pictures!) and also some of the faculty members I work with at a happy hour. It was great we could all meet, and we had some great conversations with all of them.

I felt fortunate to see my family and so many good friends and ‘show them around’ my favorite places to walk, eat, visit markets, my apartment, and meet my friends and colleagues, so that there is some shared understanding when I come home.

Trip to Laos
Just as I could imagine feeling lonely after everyone had gone back home, but also because the University was closed the two weeks after, I booked a trip to Laos.
I left the same day, even before Fred, Anneke and Vincent left, so I would not feel ‘left behind’!
I flew to Vientiane and spent the weekend with Dutch acquaintances, (Nicolette, Renee and their two sons). They live in a gorgeous house and it was very pleasant to be with them. Vientiane is not necessarily a beautiful city, but it is a dreamy place along the Mekong river. Much less traffic and people and a slower pace than Phnom Penh. Nicolette and I biked around Vientiane and visited some great pagoda’s and landmark stupa’s, and the independence monument that looks like the Arc de Triumph. We climbed it, to have a great view over Vientiane. We also went to a interesting Buddha Park with some bizarre statutes, and had a great lunch in a boat that went up a river about 30 kilometers out of town. Very peaceful and fun!
Then I took a 4 hour bus ride to Vang Vieng, or so I thought. The VIP bus had been overbooked and when I was picked up from the travel agent, as I was told, the bus was full and I, and 10 others, were put in an old minivan without ac and drove for over 6 hours over a very bumpy road. There was a lot of joking about the VIP treatment, but it was not particularly fun and not great scenery either. Yet a I got a good idea about rural life, that did not look any different from how people lived 35 years ago when I was in PNG. I arrived with a real back ache!
I took a tuk tuk 10 kilometers out of town to the "eco-lodge" (which was booked for me) and when we got there, I first did not believe that was the place. It was off the road and just looked like a thatched roof riverside village, with a couple of bungalows. I was the only guest, and I saw very quickly that there was no lights on the path and that would mean that I would be in my room from 6.00 pm until morning without anything to do. No ac in the room, but there was electric light and a van. First I thought it would be an adventure, but I had my doubts. Then I went to the "restaurant", I was really hungry after that long bus trip, and wanted “morning glory” ( a vegetable dish), or fried vegetables, neither of them was available. The young woman did not speak English and I started to feel miserable. I ordered a big beer Lao, which she had to go buy on a roadside stall and took for ages to come! That was the end of it. When I drank half of it, I told the woman to call the tuktuk and that I could not stay. The same tuktuk driver picked me up and apparently was not surprised. I told him to take me to a hotel in town, same price range and he took me to a great hotel, on the river with a magnificent view out of my third floor room. All mountains (in the smoke because of field burnings!) but beautiful. It was great! Had CNN on my tv in the room!! Starving by then, I had a mango shake and vegetable curry in the river side restaurant and felt quite happy!! The next morning I went kayaking on the river (started right at the eco-lodge!!) and had 4 hours of unusual quiet that I had not experience in months. I had a private guide and we only heard birds (which he did the calling for) and the river! The guide was great! He let me swim and float and we took some mild, but fun runs!! I had my sunscreen blouse on, but my hands got badly burned, even with 50 UBV sunscreen after 4 hours kayaking. It was enough, but wonderful. We stopped also to visit a cave, but I declined when we got there, because he told me that the water would be up to about the middle of my thighs. I was not in the mood for that in a dark cave! We stopped back at my hotel!
Then I had a Lao massage in my room, it was great but not for the weak of heart or body! Wow, the woman used force bending every leg and arm and my back!! The stay in Vang Vieng turned out to be wonderful, but hot. There are lot of riverside places for tubbing and jumping, and it seems to be a ‘hippy haven’ to have fun and get druk. Everywhere it says: “Free shots all day!”

The next morning I took the bus to Luang Prabang. It was as if I was back in the highlands of PNG. It was a 7 hour winding road up to a summit, along villages and fields through the mountains, great views, some like old Chinese mountain views in the smoky air! (Farmers are burning the forest to create new plots for their gardens) Then all the way winding down. I was the only 60+ person in the bus with a backpacking crowd of 20+ youngsters, who all went to sleep and missed the gorgeous views! Kids through water in the bus because of the Lao New Year and the bus attendant threw water at only girls on motor bikes we passed. It was an unforgettable trip, in an old bus that went very slowly and had no ac. It is still brutally hot!

I got my soul back in Luang Prabang. I wanted to go to Luang Prabang, since many Hmong people I worked with in Spokane came from around that area, and I wanted to see it for myself. It is the ancient capital of the Lao Kings, situated where the Mekong and the Nan Khan river flow together. Lucretia Stewart (Tiger Balm, 1992) writes this about Luang Prabang: “ It was the cherished dream of every retired French colonial officer to end his days in Luang Prabang, the Shangri-La of the Orient, a beautiful indolent Lao wife at his side, attending to his every need” (p 242).

It is a sleepy old town, reminiscent of English villages, but with Wats and monks everywhere. I stayed in a guesthouse next to the Santi Hotel where David and Chris stayed and went for early walks, (6.30 a.m.) along the Mekong and the Nan Khan rivers and just by chance saw the famous procession of monks begging in my street and being offered food by kneeling devotees. It was so quiet, with hardly any traffic at that time, very different from Phnom Penh. I visited the Royal Palace, which it beautiful and saw a great Ho Chi Minh poster exhibition, beautiful temples, all from different times and some with pretty violent scenes from I’m sure events in one of the 37 hells! I climbed the sacred hill in the center of town, which offers a great view of the city (in smoke!) One of the two pagoda’s on the hill has a foot print (very large!) of the Buddha, and I wondered in how many places he travelled and left footprints, (or hairs, or fingernails!). Luang Prabang has a delightful night market and I bought quite a few things, including a pair of cotton dark grey pants. When I washed them, the water got so black, and stained the floor of the shower! I had to use bleach to get that clean. I’m not sure what they use to dye, but I got stains on my white blouse and other items, just after rinsing off! I ended up throwing them out, it was impossible rinse out all the dye!! A highlight was to visit the famous many tiered waterfalls, called Kuang Si. They are 30 kilometers south of LP, and offered a cooler place in beautiful surroundings. I walked all the way up along the falls and swam in one of the pools. Wonderful!
I did not do everything I wanted to do, the trip to the waterfall was advertised with a stop at a Hmong village, which did not happen, because the driver did not come back until 4.00 p.m instead of 2.30 p.m. and everyone in the van was really tired from waiting in the heat. Actually, I felt horrible and suspect I had a heat stroke or was dehydrated, although I drank a lot of water. Being late also prevented me to book a rivertrip the next day to go to some famous caves with a lot of Buddha’s in them. Instead I went to see a couple more temples which I did not regret. I just have to include Luang Prabang again in one of my future travels with Fred!!

I flew back to Vientiane, but had to spend the the night on my way back to Phnom Penh, and it was surprisingly wonderful. I stayed in a hotel on the Mekong river, and had a wonderful dinner at a riverside restaurant (smoked Norwegian salmon on white toast with homemade mayonnaise!). It was a beautiful and quiet place and a great night time temperature. I dreamily watched the lights across of the Thai town at the other side of the Mekong. It was a gorgeous good bye to Laos!

And finally, my rat(s) in case you are interested!
Coming home was a challenge. I was not really looking forward to a week home alone and that mood only worsened when I came to the mess in my house. The rat sure noticed that I was not there, and must have invited all his family and friends to party and feast on all they could find in my apartment. The floor was full of droppings, the shelves covered with pieces of paper and plastic from eaten through plastic lids of containers of red curry paste, or other condiments. They also liked the “breathe easy” teabags Fred had brought. If that was not enough, I opened the drawers of my plastic drawers (did not know they could get in there!!) and they had left their marks as well. They had eaten through my Tupperware container of rice, nibbled royally at the packages of different kind of noodles and other things one would not think would be food for rodents. I went through my closets and found evidence of their visits as well!
I called my landlord and showed him the mess and the possible places they could enter my apartment. He seemed only mildly impressed. He promised to do something “after the New Year”, which would take another week!! If not, I will call the pest control myself! It took me a long time to clean, wash the shelves with bleach, throw everything out, (yes everything that has to do with food), washed all my dishes and decided to only prepare food that I could store in the refrigerator!
Needless to say I was more than disgusted and decide that “accepting things as they are” is beyond this situation. I now barricade my balcony door with a double row of books to close the hole they ate in the cover under the door.
The whole thing creeps me out, especially since last night I woke up at three by a lot of noise, and thought someone was trying to break in. It got my heartbeat up, because I always thought I was save and locked up! There is barbed wire all around my apartment and the landlord lives downstairs. Then it was clear that pretty big rats (or whatever animals) were running over the ceiling of my room for more than 10 minutes, creating havoc!! I’ll see what happens next week, but if my landlord gets under the roof, I am sure he will be surprised!!

Well, I am at the end of a pretty solitary week. After all, it turned out to be nice to contemplate and think about what I still can accomplish in the month or so I still have here. Tomorrow work starts again and I made a list of people and agencies I still want to visit to get more perspective on Cambodia. Especially the peace making groups and human rights and women’s rights groups are on my list.
I read quite extensively in the Dhammapadda and am reading the Three Marriages by David Whyte (2009). He is a poet and a Buddhist and writes very well about our marriages: two a partner, to a work, and to ourselves, invoking other writers and poets in making his points. He ends each chapter with his own poems which I like a lot. A great book for a solitary week!

The last hurray this time in this part of the world, will be a trip to Vietnam, (Hanoi and Sapa) with Truus, my first roommate and friend from Holland. We have so looked forward to this trip and it will happen the end of May! We will go to Siem Reap as well, and she will end up in Phnom Penh with me, just a few days before I come home.

What an adventure it has been!

May you all be well and peaceful!

Love, Golie

Posted by golieda 02:14 Archived in Cambodia Tagged events Comments (0)

And the experience continues

Everyday experiences and more history

Greetings all!

My last blog was posted the last day of February and now it is far into March already. My life continues to be full of experiences: instructive, fun, sad, and reflective.

Being for a while in a country is really different from being a tourist. Some views and experiences become normal: traffic, going to the market and paying different prices for the same things (banana's, mango's, limes, etc.)........Also, being treated as a tourist and charged way to much for tuktuk rides! I tell the drivers who want $3.00 for a close ride: "I live here, I am not a tourist, one dollar o.k.??" and most of the time they say "yes"! There was just an article in the paper about how prices of transportation got higher, and to be honest, gasoline prices have risen dramatically in the last couple of months. Tuk tuk drivers stand on the street corner a lot and wait and wait for customers. The one I use regularly tells me that sometimes he has no business the whole day. Then it is hard to just give him a dollar, although it is the going rate for very short distances! I feel somewhat guilty to go on my bike or walk a lot, that means that they do not make money!! ---That's what they tell me on my corner!! I have made friends with them and bring them the Khmer language section of the newspaper everyday! They seem to enjoy that! Mr Pak, one of my tuktuk driver friends, home, sometimes just asks whether he can take me home when I walk by. If I say yes ( when I have shopping bags or am really tired from the gym, or it is getting late!) then he does not want any money!! I tell him "no"! "You should ask me to pay. " No" he says, "I do for you, you are my customer!" That is Cambodia!! ( But I do give him some money!)

After a while it does sink in that this is a very "new' country", for better or for worse creating a modern state after literally about a century of French colonisation, and after independence from France in 1953, dealing with civil strife, civil war, incredible bombings from the US, an overthrown government, and the Khmer Rouge regime,(Democratic Kampuchea), during which an estimated 2 million people (mainly educated people) were killed or starved to death. After that the Vietnamese invaded, (with many fled Cambodians and defected Khmer Rouge adherents) or liberated the country in 1979. People have different opinions about this, but they ended the Khmer Rouge regime. After this a Vietnamese installed government led a country that had few surviving administrators, no market system, no currency, no education system, no financial institutions and no industries. The civil war continued, and in 1991, the United Nations became charged with creating a United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC), which was charged with mediating a cease fire and to organize the first elections in 1993 for the National Assembly. The new Assembly was to draft a new constitution. The elections were held, but UNTAC did not manage to end the civil war and to broker a peace accord. So the civil war continued as well as the political intriques, which only strengthened Hun Sen's (currenly prime minister and been in charge since the end of the Khmer Rouge period. He galvanized his power though coups and repression. Cambodia is now basically a one party ruled country and ranks #2 in Asia in terms of corruption. It suffers also from lack of all kinds of services. Yet, the government is seen as "the parent" and not (as western democracies see it) "the servants" of the people! I read somewhere that Cambodia has never experienced democratic rule since the days of the ancient Angkor, and that the threat of foreign aggression supported strong leadership at the expense of of people's involvement in governmental affairs. (This is only a simplified account of the past!! It all is of course more complex and involves a whole lot of players I did not even mention!!). Reading the newspaper everyday helps to see what is going on, and helps to understand who benefits and who suffers from the political constellation and power elites! It is often who you know that gets you somewhere! The patronage system is alive and well. Myriads of NGO's of different colors and stripes are in many way substitutes for what in other countries the Government offers as a 'safety net' and/or basic human services and other government tasks (environment, natural resources, healthcare etc). It will take a while before this country can be measured against modern standards of democracies, while capitalism can flourish!!

I went to the Documentation Center of Cambodia recently, which is in charge of documenting the crimes and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era. They gave me some free dvd's (although they were $5.00 each): "Just for you!" they say, after I made acquaintance with a documentary producer!). Their goal is "memory and justice" and the center is staffed entirely by Cambodians. The executive director is a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, and the center conducts research, training and documentation about the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979). This center did a national survey in 2002, (an idea according to the executive director) encouraged by the Dutch Ambassador to Cambodia at the time. They published the survey in their monthly magazine: "Searching for Truth" (700 respondents, a little over 10% response rate), asking Cambodians about their experiences and losses during the Khmer Rouge regime, and about justice and reconciliation, and how these concepts should be implemented in Cambodia. The results provided information in terms of creating the UN Tribunal (Extraordinary Court of Cambodia, ECC). The results show that Cambodians do not want revenge, but justice.
Below is a moving quote from the director of the Institute:
" Each September, as Cambodians ancestor holiday draws near, I wonder whether former Khmer Rouge leaders......will visit a monastery... as they have in the past year. I wonder what they think about while they pray to the statues of the Buddha, in the presence of monks, both of which they sought to eliminate during the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea regime. Would Buddha and the monks relieve them of responsibility for the heinous crimes they.... committed against the Cambodian people? Would Buddha forgive their sins?" (Youk Chang, 2002).

I also went to the celebration of the 99th International Women's day in the same hall with the same format as the graduation I wrote about earlier. Students were excused from classes, and the minister of Women's Affair gave a rather good speech. Cambodia has a long way to go in terms of gender equality, and the grinding poverty and layoffs in the garment industry does not help. The ultimate choice to make a living or have a child make money for the family is sex trafficking and prostitution of children as young as ten years old. There was a crack down on brothels a couple of years ago, but now the trade is 'hidden' in beer gardens, karaoke bars, entertainment centers and 'guest houses'. Every week there is a report of a foreigner accused of having sex with minors and rapes in the general population is a big problem as well. To the credit of the Ministry of Women's Affair, the issue of trafficking and sexual violence is a priority and the minister was very aware that poverty is at the root of all this. The rural and urban economic development agenda is not really aggressively focused on this issue, thus solutions are piecemeal and insufficient.

On a lighter note their were some entertainment highlights!
I went to a "Concert for a culture of peace" organized by Bridges to Peace, an initiative of nobel peace prize winners and carried out by the International Peace Foundation. It is a series of speakers and artist (I saw Oliver Stone before).
The concert was performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and his two sons, Dimitri (clarinet) and Vovka (piano) in the Chaktomuk concert hall on the river. They played in pairs: Vladimir and Dimitri: Clarinet and Piano. Lovely, they played some Schubert pieces I know by heart! Then Vladimir and Vovka played double piano also very nice!. The Cambodian music page turners were somewhat problematic, but they managed not to let that influence them!

Just before Dimitri was going to introduce the encore, it started pouring rain on the roof!! Literally deafening and he needed a microphone! It created quite a hilarious stir. Then he told that his father and each of them had performed quite a bit together, never the three of them, because there is simply no music for two piano's and a clarinet. They found a Russian composer who composed a piece just for this occasion, and they were going to play the piece for the first time! So this Cambodian performance was a premiere! He told the meaning of the piece, a grandmother and a goat, (Vladimir came to interrupt 2x because Dimitri did not tell the story correctly! quite a comical interchange between father and son!!) the latter, who in the end was eaten by a wolf!! The piece was lovely. The audience quite happy!! I enjoyed the evening and it was free!!
I had to go home on my bike in the pouring rain!! Quite dangerous because streets were flooded, and my glasses fogged and completely covered with water! Hope that it does not happen a lot!! Nearly ran over a pedestrian who came running from nowhere!

One of the cultural highlights of this period was to visit a rehearsal of the Khmer Art traditional dance group, outside of town. (see pictures). The backdrop was beautiful and the performance was fascinating. The movements and hand movements of the dancers are gorgeous and the result of years of training. The choreography is traditional with some adjustments by the artistic director, a Cambodian dancer. She gave us a detailed explanation afterwards, which made it even more interesting, and it was all very beautiful.

In the meantime, Fred and Anneke and Vincent have arrived and we are having a good time in Siem Reap, visiting temples and floating villages.

More later,
love Golie

Posted by golieda 03:27 Comments (0)

"Once in a lifetime" ceremonies

Regular life is special

Greetings all,

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,

Love, Golie

Posted by golieda 23:39 Comments (1)

Happy Chinese New Year and Valentines Day.

Time flies, only 108 more days to go!

Happy Chinese New Year.

This whole city is even more crazily busy on major streets today, (Friday) with people flocking to the markets (to buy food to cook for ancestor worship and family dinners) and/or leaving town for family celebrations and picnics in the country. Many students were absent today to go their villages. Many street businesses are decorated with red lanterns and pictures of cute chinese dolls. (Even if you are not Chinese, there will a celebration of a family get-togethers, although the Chinese are the largest minority group in this city). The police trained special units to control traffic violations: overloaded cars, pick-ups (they are really overloaded, with people on roofs and freight tied up, through unclosed doors! just strings!) Of course drunk driving and speeding are also infractions and frequent causes of accidents! Leaving the University people said: "Happy Chinese New Year!" This year the Lunar New Year is at the same day as Valentine's day and of course businesses and restaurants try to connect the two!!

Last week I was in Kuala Lumpur where there is a large Chinese population and everything and everybody was already preparing for the New Year, buying food and boxes full of mandarin oranges and special cookies etc. The streets in China town and Chinese neighborhoods were all decorated and it was a great site!
I visited a young woman, Shirley, (who I met in Siem Reap at the beginning of the year in a temple and we spend a whole day together), and since I had to leave the country to get a business visa to change my tourist visa, I decided to go see her. It was a whole new experience, to be invited into the culture of a third generation Chinese family! ( Shirley is a Hakka, Chinese, but there are also Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochen and Hainanese populations. Every Chinese identifies with the area and the Chinese group they came from. Many speak there own language, Cantonese, Mandarin, Malay, and English, and if your father and mother belong to other groups, the languages of both. All have retained their own cultural practices).
It turned out to be a wonderful 4 days! Right after she picked me up at 8.00 p.m. we went to eat fried noodles and shrimp with greens and lime juice on the sidewalk, with many people. That's what happened the rest of the five days, either buying food at the street (fried rice, cooked eggs in currysauce, vegetables, tofu, fish or meat to take home for breakfast!) end up like nasi rames for the Dutch readers among you! )or Dim Sum, all in Chinese street restaurants, great ! with only Chinese customers.
The first day we went to Malakka, a trade town, colonized first by the Portugese, then the Dutch from 1653 on. The Dutch build a big brick Church in 1753 to celebrate over 100 years colonization, and brought all the materials from Holland, except the wood for the beams. There was one grave stone on the floor of a 27 year old Dutch men, wonder who he was and what his role was. They also built a "Stadthuys" (city hall) which is still called that way, although it is now a museum. The majority of the population is Malay (Muslim) who have all kinds of rights other groups do not have (discounts in interest when buying a house etc.) Other groups are Baba-Nyonga's, decendents of Chinese and Malays, with distinct clothing and rituals. Then there are Indians and Chittys (mixed Indian and Malay since the 15th century). Remnants of this rich history are every where. For instance there is a lovely Chinatown, mainstreet called Jonkerstreet, with the oldest Chinese temple outside of China, the Cheng Hoon Teng temple, a Mosque and a Hindu temple all in one street! They call it Harmony street!
The Chinese temple represents three worldviews: Confucius (people come to pray before exams!), Taoism (ancestor and other deities worship) and Buddhism. The temple is dedicated to Quan Yin, who originated according to Shirly in Taoist times and is not a Buddhist goddess. We bought joss sticks and I followed my devout Chinese friends: bow with all the joss-sticks smoldering pressed to your forehead between your hands, say prayers of gratitude and blessings, and start with putting three sticks for Quan Yin, and go round and offer 1 stick to all the altars with Gods and Deities (education, business, prosperity, old age, health, etc) and ancestors. An old nun in brown was chanting in front of Quan Yin and the Buddha, quite moving. "May we filled with compassion and mercy!! "
Then we saw a shoemaker, who makes shoes for bounded feet (originally 3 inches), (see picture). Women could hardly stand up and had to be carried around. Not many of these women left, but he still makes them and the majority is for tourists. He is the only one in the world to make these shoes. I told him my grandfather was a shoemaker and we had a delightful conversation. His store is 3rd generation as well.
Unfortunately the Mosque was not for tourists and the Hindu temple was closed. We ended up in a satay place, where you pick sticks to be satayed (meats, mushrooms, tofu, fish balls, vegetables), and in the middle of the table is a big pot cooking with satay sauce fired by a gasheater under the table. It reminded me of having a fondue!
The whole day was delightful and I learned a lot!

The rest of my days we spend in Kuala Lumpur and they were quite wonderful as well. We went to the Batu caves, a Hindu monument where Tamil Indians worship. We had to climb 271 straight steps up, but it was all very festive since it was the festival of Thaipusan when milk is offered to a god (don't know who) for purification and blessings. Heads are shaved and covered with a yellow mud. Grandmothers do that with their grandchildren for blessings (See picture of baby). They all climb up and to see the different Hindu Gods was worth it, but also for the rock formations! Of course we went to see the twin towers, on top of a huge shopping mall! At night pretty spectacularly lighted up!

Shirley's family took me in, and at the first meal her father opened a French Bordeaux from 1999! which we all drank. Shirley's sister lives with her parents, two married sisters live in the same street and Shirley and her brother have one house as well. Everyone has maids. So the whole family lives together, but in different houses, and they go out for dinner once a week to the same place, which we did on Saturday night. Again, on a street corner with delicious food! They joked and laughed and ate and it was delightful to see and experience.
The last outing was to the Gendang Casina in the mountains, where Shirley's father 'works' for one hour a week. Joking! He gambles and often wins a lot of money! (We just went to the shopping mall!) Gendang means literally 'above the clouds' and you get there taking a winding road into the mountains, quite beautiful . The first thing to arriv
e at is a big Budhhist temple and statues and a patio with great carvings, then further up is the Casina. Quite a contrast! The whole trip was a highlight and I learned so much about the Hakka/Chinese worldview. They have altars inside (for ancestors and deities) and outside the house: Deity of Heaven. They offer incense every morning and say their prayers of blessings and asking for safety. Shirley told me that they have retained their tradition, but in China people do not live this way anymore.

My life here in Phnom Penh keeps being interesting. I had a quiet weekend, but try to do something everyday that is new and different. I have a new bike, and bike to the Univerisity or bike around at four, when it is cooling off, but before sunset, sit at the riverside at the third floor of a restaurant as I often do, read the paper or a book, and feel quite peaceful. I got to be my own best friend, and I like it!
Yesterday (Saturday) I had a Khmer Lesson at 7.30 and know my lessons. Then when my teachers start asking me questions in Kmai, it all disappears!! I might be too old to learn a new language! An hour lasts a long time!! Then I skyped with Fred, talked to Sheila, and had coffee with a colleague. I walked the whole afternoon. First to a big bookstore, to a Chinese restaurant, and went to see a documentary: The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields. This was about the only member of the Royal dance group, Em Theay who survived the Pol Pot period. She is now 68 and told her personal story (2 other younger dancers and a man as well). There was back-footing to Phnom Penh and Tuol Sleng prison where thousands of people were murdered. Em Theay is reviving the traditional dances and we saw quite a few as well as shadow puppets. Very interesting, beautiful and well done, too bad there were only 5 people in the audience! I walked to the main area and had pumpkin soup at a restaurant where they train street kids to be cooks and servers. Delicious. The town was all lighted up and festive, with fountains all llighted up with colored lights and water displays. Quite a party! I left at 1 and came home at 7 and had a good time!

This morning (Sunday) I went to a 90 minute yoga/meditation class on a rooftop, quite lovely in the wind! I had not "sat" for 90minutes for a long time and it was quite taxing, but wonderful. A lot of breathing exercises and arm movements (open the heart chakra's) as well as meditation. I have been tired the rest of the day as I did my housework: laundy, clean and shop!
For the rest, my rat has decided to only occasionally leave a sign of his/her presence, and I am taking half an ambien at night to go to sleep. Life has improved!!

Hope all is well with all of you,
I miss you!

Love, Golie

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