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.

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