Still a lot to learn
04.15.2010 - 05.13.2010 99 °F
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!
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!