Monday, October 29, 2012

Death, Debate and a Doughnut

When you live less than a block from the Royal Palace, the death of a Royal person really has an impact on daily life.  In the first days of King Father Norodom Sihanouk's  death and the heightened protection of the Palace, the streets were blocked within a large periphery surrounding  the towering cream-colored cement walls. 
The phoenix carrying the King Father's body as it passes by Independence Monument.  Telegraph UK photo
The phoenix carrying the
King Father's body as it passes
by Independence Monument. Telegraph UK photo

  Determined Cambodians on motorbikes found ways around and through, with police officers doing their best enforce with increasing frustration as the initial days passed. Then the cops fiqured out the rope system.  The rope stays up for anyone without a worthy excuse and the rope comes down for residents and bicyclists to pass over.  

This photo taken from a high spot near my office on the day of the King Father's procession.
This photo taken from a high spot near my
office on the day of the King
Father's procession.
On my way home from work on Tuesday, the log jam of tuk tuks and cars made it impossible to make my way home on the streets.   I lifted my bike up and over the ten inch curb to make my way through the park surrounding the Vietnamese Friendship Monument.   Hordes of white-shirted people were making their way to the royal palace.

Masses of boys and girls, women and men, vendors selling mylar balloons, popcorn, and snacks and lotus flowers.    I was struck by the number of older women walking slowly, wearing the traditional white cotton shirt with discreet lace, ankle length black skirts and a white silk sash draped across their shoulder and down to their waist.  My Khymer colleagues say this is a ballayai (a bad transliteration).  Solina, the young intern in our office, tells me that you get to learn how to drape it when you reach a significant milestone in life.  I also learn that women are the spirit keepers of the Buddhist faith, often after being widowed.  As I reached my neighborhood, I  was compelled to join in. 

The Royal Palace after dark.  LTO blog.
The Royal Palace after
 dark. LTO blog.
 Lines of motorbikes and cars were nestled within the parking lot of the supermarket/restaurant next door.  Part of a human a river gaining flow, I felt carried into the ceremony, buoyed by the sense of ritual and tradition.   For Cambodians, the King Father was the one constant through over 50 years of colonization, war, genocide, more war, a UN transitional team and independent governance.  He was revered for his role as a Royal, yet criticized for his shifting allegiances and life-long philandering.  The ceremony and gatherings have been in progress since his death in China on October 15th.  Thousands turned out for his repatriation procession through the streets of Phnom Penh a few days earlier. Tonight was the Buddhist ceremony to mark the seventh day since he died. 
As I reached the corner of the Palace facing the Tonle Sap River, an older woman reached for my hand and encouraged me to join her and her daughter.  There was no reason for me to disagree, so we wound our way through the crowds together.   It helped that the “Auntie” was tiny and determined, her hand a warm sense of concrete caring in a sea of humanity intent on paying homage.    We were given a bottle of water and sticks of incense and made our way to the closest edge of the offering site.  Crowds were perched on the edge, squatting in a prayer to mélange of carnations, candles, water bottles and incense sticks, some propped up the open bottles and others scattered around like pick-up sticks. Small fires caught from the combination of all the material.  Auntie had her time, squatting in that deep way that Asians do so effortlessly and raising her palms together to her forehead in the traditional Buddhist prayer.  As her daughter and I stood back, I took in the experience.  The smoke from the incense billowed into the sky; thick and rich with poignancy and passage.  When she was done, we moved away and I bid my guides goodbye.  Auntie spoke to her daughter in Khmer, who translated to me, “Have you ever been to Sihnaoukville?”  “Not yet,”   I say, “But I will look for you there when I go.”
The following night, I attended a taped version of the US Presidential Debate that focused on foreign policy.  While I was waiting for the show to start, a white woman carrying three tote bags plopped down in the seat next to me.

 Lois introduced herself.  Her hair was bedraggled, her face sun-ravaged and wearing a very unusual ensemble of black leather mini-boots, lots of hanging jewelry, a scarf and a soiled white vest.  She ordered a Jim Beam on the rocks.  Her business card was in gold leaf print and read "Political Philanthropy", with four phone numbers reflecting area codes from Cambodia, Thailand and California.  I was wary of getting too far into conversation.  I felt a bit subconscious about hanging out with her.  I'd come with the goal of meeting some local democrats.   I felt an unfortunate moment of anxiety (what will people think?)  when I lost my curiosity about her own, special reality.

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.  The US, when King Father Norodom made his first diplomatic visit to Washington in 1953, he was dismissed.  He later made his way to China where he was greeted with much fanfare and respect, likely paving the way for enhanced relations with North Vietnam and the ensuing, covert US-led “carpet bombing” of eastern Cambodia.  This action resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 people and likely contributed to the continuation of the Vietnam war.  Lois looked like she’s spent more than a few nights arguing about this in a variety of bars.  The debate came on and we settled in to watch the show.  After it was over, there were invitations to fundraisers, a call to vote and everyone left to their own devices.  It was somewhat unsatisfying. The theater and drama seemed trite after the previous night.

Monks gather for seven day prayers.  Cambodia Daily.
Monks gather for seven
day prayers. Cambodia Daily.
On the night before, I’d taken a few minutes after Auntie and her daughter left to walk around on my own.  The legions of monks that had gathered for prayers slowly proceeded down the Sisowath Quay that runs alongside of the river. 

Vendors were selling photos of the waxing Gibbous moon with the King Father’s face on it, validating rumors that locals had seen a lunar sign when the clouds cleared on nights following the King Father’s death.   A grumble of thunder and a flash of lighting were in the distance.  I’m conscious of the crowds that are packed shoulder to shoulder in the area.  There’s an underlying awareness of the power of the crowd converging around the Palace. One action could set off a whole series of other reactions.  Not only does Cambodia have one of the highest rates of - PTSD,  a tragic consequence of panic  ensued at the Water Festival in 2010, where hundreds died in a stampede.

It was time to move on.  I took the long way around and joined more of the crowds on their way back to the main streets.   A woman walked next to me carrying over a dozen donuts, each in a small plastic bag with handles.   In the mere moments after I’d glanced at the bags and thought about why she was selling donuts, she came up behind me. She  presented me with a doughnut, using two hands in the traditional way.  “This is for you.  It’s a gift.”

I made my way to the gate in front of the apartment building and large raindrops splattered the sidewalk.   Moments later, the skies opened in the typical torrential rain of South Asia. In the comfort of my apartment,  I took a moment to savor this perfect donut, golden brown on the outside with a hint of granular sugar, perfectly leavened from the oil frying, stretchy and tender.  It was a gentle reassurance in a tumultuous week of witness, grief, political analysis and eulogizing. Her gesture of kindness and ceremony was far more than just a gift.  It made me realize the power of being in this country as a single person, and of the importance of stepping out to reach across culture and share a human experience. 
Mourners, The King Father and the Moon.  Phnom Penh Post.
Mourners, The King Father and the Moon. Phnom Penh Post.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tuk Tuk, Madam?

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I was on a determined walk to the English language bookstore (!!!) down the street when I realized I’d forgotten to eat lunch. I looked up under the umbrella, looked around and noticed the man, encased in a lightweight yellow plastic bag with sleeves that are the standard raincoat here, come up the street. His foot cart had a row of banana leaf wrapped treats roasting over a small wood fire.
  He stopped in front of me and made a delivery across four lanes of traffic to the security guard across the street, wading through Phnom Penh’s post-rain flooding in his flip flops. When he returned, I motioned him over and eagerly handed over my 1000 reil bill (about 25 cents--there are no coins here) to experiment.  It was reassuringly warm steamy in my palm.  Removing the toothpicks, I gleefully opened the browned, steaming package to reveal a sweet, crunchy toasted sticky rice and banana treat. It was heaven-sent sustenance.    

Life in Phnom Penh is incredibly easy.  Within days after my arrival, I’d made a new friend at my hostel, secured an apartment with all the amenities to live,  gotten oriented on the basic ways around, formed an acquaintance with Bonar, an entrepreneurial, young, moderately good English speaking Tuk Tuk Guy (TTG) and started to pick up a few words of Khmer.  Life feels familiar here, but with subtle changes from a distinct cultural character.  I feel like I’ve gone to visit a close relative in a big city.  Giddy with things to do and places to explore, I’m thrilled to be in the beginning of a new life stage swollen with hopes and potential discoveries.  

Naga is a prominent Buddhist diety, but in Cambodia there are seven heads.
Naga is a prominent Buddhist deity,
but in Cambodia there are seven heads.
While the ways of life—the omnipresent motorbikes, the temples and monks, the evening exercise routines and the street markets—are similar, there are several key differences that  will make my life here much more engaging.   I’m not sure if it’s my work outfit (skirt and blouse), my gray hair, my smile or maybe all three—but Khmer people talk to me all the time. In English!   In the Khmer buffet ($2.50) across the parking lot from my office, I’ve shared two tables with women who started a conversation, provided some advice and congenially hoped they would see me again.  On my walk to work the other morning, wearing my Thai dress in a traditional fabric of the northern region’s famers, a TTG pulled over to talk to me in Thai and ask me where I was from.  The kindness and caring of people here is exceptional.   I've changed too.  With a careful confidence and aura of international acumen, I’m no longer afraid to bumble my way through interactions.  However, the traffic here is a force to be reckoned with.
Cambodians want to keep moving. To do this, they will drive the wrong way on a street, do a U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic, make a turn directly into incoming traffic, attempt to pass a traffic jam by hauling their SUV up and over the curb and talk on their cell phone while the three year old child is perched on the motorbike driver’s lap.

This instills occasional terror, persistent caution, in-credulousness and a wishful omniscience (who is that coming up behind me?)  when I am around town.  Cars, motorbikes, tuk tuks,  bicycles and the occasional pedestrian (the kids walking home from school, chatting with their friends two across and eating ice cream in the middle of traffic jam really add a whole other element) converge in a dance that’s a combination of waltz, slam dancing and pushing your way through the crowded dance floor amidst a throbbing disco beat in the frenzy of activity just after midnight. My newly acquired bicycle has moved me slightly up on the food chain and allowed a whole new appreciation of flow, courage and faith.  On certain trips, it pays to hire wheels. 

This was inside the menu of the guesthouse.
This was inside the menu of the guesthouse.
Last Friday was an epic day and I planned for it.  I hired Bonar for a half day.  He picked me up from the guesthouse where I had a sad goodbye to the resident pug, got the keys, dropped the bags, picked up a USB modem for internet and then off to Ourasey Market, where the prices are cheap and all the locals go.  The market is two floors high, crowded with vendors in small stalls offering everything from motorcycle parts to housewares, produce and bras, fabrics and dried meat.   The place has a legendary reputation (a fire would be catastrophic for all who work there, simply because there are so few exits) but upon entering I was struck by the familiarity of the smells of spices, the brilliant orange and gold decorations for upcoming Pchum Ben festival, and the nonchalance of the vendors.  
Orasey Market (not my photo)

Orasey Market

  Household goods in hand, Bonar met me at our prearranged time and place.  By the late afternoon I was settling into my place and eating a taro samosa that I bought from the man who pulled up into my alley and announced his arrival with a call to the alleyway.  

The view isn't much, but it gets great light and is within blocks of lots of great stuff. A school is across the street, and the riverside is just on the other side of the royal palace.
The view isn't much, but it gets great light
and is within blocks of lots of great stuff.
A school is across the street,
and the riverside is just on the other side of the royal palace.

I am so grateful to have my own quiet space, with a balcony, families below, good walking nearby and close to a couple of supermarkets and work.   The apartment, with gleaming tile to about one and a half meters up the walls, exudes a sense of clean austerity and functionality.   With a three month lease at $200 a month, I’m set. The hallway with which I was instantly enamored.
The hallway with which I was instantly enamored.
 PP has a vibrant network of information sources for expats: a facebook group, a yahoo list serv, classifieds and forums.  I discovered a house sale on Saturday; she advertised a reading lamp and free pillows.  The entry gate, beautiful beveled French doors, teak flooring, the French accents of the residents and highly priced really nice stuff showed a different class of expat than me, but I scored some helpful items and a well-worn Khmer phrase book.  Last year taught me that bringing out the book is the best prop for generating conversations and discussions.  

The slum just behind my office building. If you look closely, you can see a very large dragon fruit tree cascading off the balcony in the upper right.  I couldn't believe it.
The slum just behind my office building.
If you look closely, you can see a very
large dragon fruit tree cascading off the
balcony in the upper right. I couldn't believe it.
While folks in my new office have been on leave or preoccupied with upcoming deadlines, I am starting to dive into projects for my three month commitment with Cord (  Cord builds the capacity of local, grassroots organizations to generate peace. 

While the immediate needs of post-conflict areas are often focused on relief (food and shelter), Cord's work is directed at empowering residents to effective rehabilitation: addressing local problems in a constructive and effective manner by fostering trust among members within groups, among groups themselves and between government and civil society organizations.  Cord trains and coaches on communication, governance and leadership to move communities to development, where they can independently begin to build peace.  In Cord’s vision, a peaceful world is one where each person has dignity, where human rights are respected and where multiple sectors--public, private and non-governmental—are working together.   It's a great team and I'm happy to be helping. 
On the banks of a canal of the river. Plumeria tree, families fishing and a huge mall across the bridge.
Across the Tonle Sap river,
new developments are in process.  
As I embark on my second week in this vibrant city, filled with contrasts.  On  Sunday’s bike ride I passed scores of families on late afternoon outings. The mall has arrived in PP, but McDonald's hasn't shown up yet. I've seen young Khmer boys sporting bouffant-like hairstyles and filthy boys with bare butts holding the burlap bag while their mother shovels sand into it. A monk with an iPad  A one-legged man (likely from a landmine) on crutches and a gleaming white Land cruiser with the UNICEF logo on the side.   For now, this will be my home and I am happy to be soaking up all the amenities of a larger city.   

Lucky the puppy