Monday, December 13, 2010

Appreciation of Multiple Arms

We enjoy another great breakfast at the hotel. They don't have the noodle dish today, instead something that is labelled Chicken Porridge. Porridge to me is something principally made of mushed grains, but to this translator it is apparently anything served hot in bowls. It's chicken rice soup. Also good. And I eat vast quantities of baguettes with French butter. And juice, which I realize now is Tang. Kind of a shame with all the fresh fruit around, but Tang is actually pretty tasty. We were supposed to go today for our indoctrination at the Tabitha centre, where we would get information about the families we would be working with and to make sure we all understood cultural instructions and NGO rules. Because of the water festival however, they are short-staffed and have decided to postpone it until tomorrow, shortening the Tabitha indoctrination and combining it with our visit to a couple of historical sites necessary for understanding Cambodian history. So today is an unexpected "free day."

I tag along with a group who have similar tastes to me. The early morning tuk-tuk ride reveals piles of garbage on the street, but they are neat piles awaiting collection. Someone has swept them there, by the looks of it. Many people are sleeping on the sidewalks, or just waking up to open their sidewalk-based businesses. My roommate photographs a man sleeping on a parked motorcycle, lying back on the seat with his feet up on the handlebars. Some kids come up and wake him up, apparently to tell him she has done so. There is no social safety net in Cambodia. You work or you die. So people work, at businesses with minimal capital outlay, sitting on the street selling things other people have discarded, or that they have made themselves out of found materials. Food does grow on trees here, and someone with nothing doesn't just walk to where there is a papaya tree and eat, they collect fruit to sell. They can't profit much, because other people can walk to fruit trees too, so there is competition. You see value-added service like pineapples already peeled and scored so they come apart easily to eat. They may then be able to invest their minuscule profits in a cart or a bicycle to increase the amount of fruit they can carry. So long as they don't get sick. Here's a well-capitalized service station. The gentleman operating this has a wicker chair on which sit bottles of gasoline, a compressor for inflating tires, and a small pile of tools with which he can effect roadside repairs. I saw several people using the services of such businesses, and I'll have more pictures of them in operation later.

First we go to a store where they make custom shoes. I could feel guilty for such a luxury, but part of the rationale for us coming here and not just sending donations is to participate in the economy. Buying locally-made items is going to do more for the people here than my sanctimoniously going home and paying five times as much for a pair of ill-fitting shoes made in China. I wonder how many people they employ in the show store and factory. The store wasn't so much like a shoe store, as like a lost and found, a big jumble of shoes and boots of all kinds, displayed somewhat haphazardly. You pick out a pair that is in a style you want, then there's a big box of heels all different shapes, heights and widths, so you pick out your heel, then they have a big ring of leather samples, different colours and weights and you pick out the leather you want. It was paralyzing having so much choice. I finally ordered some strappy turquoise ankle boots and some two-tone pumps. My roommate chooses a really interesting leather for her boots, but fortunately the clerk happens to mention that it is elephant skin. Oops, we don't think we can legally import that back to Canada. She chooses a 'cow skin' sample instead. We get to pick our shoes up up in a week, after we come back from the building project and visiting Angkor Wat.

Our next stop is the National Museum downtown, fortunately still open despite the holiday. Photographs are forbidden inside the museum, so I'll show you this Ganesha statue from the garden outside, and these soldiers in front of the entrance. Hinduism was the first major religion that came to these lands, with Buddhism coming later, but Buddhism seems to leave a lot of room for worship, as I saw statues of cows and of Shiva apparently venerated in different shrines.

The first gallery in the museum is of bronze statues, generally hand-sized up to calf (my calf, not a baby cow) -sized, with a few larger ones, of various gods and goddesses. The labels were very simple, barely more than accession tags, in Khmer and French, with English also on many, probably the later acquisitions. Without knowing the story, I just had to look and imagine the relationships among these figures. Mostly they were seated in the full lotus position or cross-legged, often atop the coils of a naga snake. Some were elephant-headed Ganesha, like the one outside, some were of Buddha, but generally a slimmer Buddha than the stereotype, and some Buddhalike, but female. A common one had many faces, ethnically Khmer. One that I tried to sketch in my notebook had eleven faces and twenty-two arms. The faces were in three tiers of head, and the arms all came from the same shoulders but curved away in different ways. Try to imagine the model for this sketch as liberally bestowed with grace and beauty as it is with limbs.

There's a room dedicated to the art of Khmer dance. It's a very disciplined dance with body positions as strict as ballet. It pleases me that the French, who founded this museum, seem to have recognized this. It's also fascinating to see proof in the ancient inscriptions and artwork that this art form is over a thousand years old.

My favourite part is the history of Khmer writing. I look at the old inscriptions and try to see if the shape of the language has changed. Perhaps the old characters are longer and loopier than the modern fonts, and the old ones may have more serifs. Or perhaps that's just to do with stone inscriptions. There's a thousand-year-old tablet setting out a list of regulations and the penalties for violating them. Sometimes the rules really are written in stone. The early Khmers had a religious custom that historians should get down on their knees to give thanks for. In dedicating their temples--which admittedly did not necessarily coincide with completion of construction--they made elaborate inscriptions giving the exact positions of all the planets they knew and of other astrological features, making them extremely easy to date. They also listed the donors to the projects along with an inventory of their donations. Some things never change. The lists of what constitutes transferable property and how much of it wealthy people had available to share gives valuable information on the culture. There is a list of the names of slaves on one tablet. I like the fact that someone who worked without reward all those years ago can be thought of an honoured by name today.

The museum is not air conditioned. They just leave some windows open for a breeze. Most of the artifacts are stone, so not sensitive to minor temperature or humidity changes, but there are some later ones that are wooden, such as some royal palanquins and the cabin from a fancy boat. Nothing is in cases and many people do not respect the multilingual and pictorial signs asking visitors not to touch. Near the end of the exhibition there are some signs explaining that the museum was closed up during the Pol Pot years, and that the Australian government contributed to its restoration. I don't know what ties Australia has to Cambodia other than proximity, but thank you, Australia. I like that Australia has a hand in preserving cultural heritage at their end of the world.

We leave the museum and walk and talk through the throng of people and interesting food vendors, stopping for a snack (I had a strawberry milkshake or something resembling one). I hope it wasn't made from ice of untreated water. I haven't quite got the guts to buy a frog on a stick. Some of the street food looks like it still has the organs in it, and I don't want to eat a frog that still has the guts in.

The crowds are increasing again for the evening, and we can tell the police must be stretched fairly thin when we see boy scouts directing traffic. We have another group meal, this one at a traditional Khmer restaurant where we take off our shoes at the door and eat sitting on the floor. I take time again to appreciate the texture of the tiles. The first dish is served on a big platter with multiple little domed lids, each over a little indentation in the platter, in which is a spoonful of the dish. It's fish in some sort of sauce. Tasty. I'll later learn that the spice is called amok, and take 500g of it home with me so I can have fish amok all year. Khmer food is served like Chinese food, where you get a bunch of dishes for the table and everyone shares them. This is a set menu, so they just keep bringing food and we all eat it. Or at least I do. The people at my table are kind of squeamish, it turns out, so I get to eat everything that has tentacles or legs or any kind of unusual presentation.

And you probably thought this post was going to include a lot of information on landmine victims. I've actually noticed far fewer people than I expected with limb amputations, and hardly any young people. I hope that a combination of eradication and education is decreasing the incidence, but it's more likely that cultural and economic factors mean that few are in the streets where I am. It's possible that everything around me is so new and different that the part of my brain that processes visual information and would normally flag a person with fewer than four limbs as notable enough to pass to consciousness is just so busy looking at everything and trying to make sense of it, that it hasn't managed, especially if people have prosthetics or are otherwise masking the injury. I did buy a handbag for a friend from an organization that provides retraining and employment to landmine victims. This is an excellent short video on the landmine issue, but watch it even if you don't need any landmine education, just to see the country and the people. It's a very accurate representation of what I saw, and not preachy or gross.

Some people were going to go down to the water festival again tonight, but it was so busy last night, and we're up early in the morning so I pass.


Jim said...

I have the good fortune to be in Saigon in February 1996, during the Chinese New Year. Everybody, their brother, sister, mother, father, friend's aunt and children came out and drove up&down main street on their mopeds (a family of 4 on a moped - quite the sight!).

And we saw the same roadside garages - gasoline in 1 gallon glass jars, some wrenches but no parts, and the items needed to fix a flat tire.

Your roadside garage was very well equipped - he has a compressor (probably hotwired into the overhead electrical wires). All the ones I saw had manual pumps - the ones that you step on and then pump up&down.

And everyone was smiling. It is a beautiful part of the world.

Verification word: Wastee. As in "no wantee, no wastee".

Aviatrix said...

Jim: I saw compressors in Phnom Penh being fuelled from the operator's pop bottle gasoline supply, but given the state of the power lines it's very possible that some were jacked in to the overhead wiring.

jwenting said...

as to landmine victims, I'd guess you'd find more of them the further away from the cities you go, and especially towards the border with Vietnam and the old Khmer Rouge fortresses where they held out last.

Usually education and cleanup after wars and other disasters start in and near cities after all, so the majority of mines in and around Phnom Penh would have been removed decades ago (one way or another).

It's much the same in Europe after WWII (and even WWI). There are still, even today, forest areas in countries like the Netherlands and Belgium where unexploded bombs, artillery shells, and mines are sometimes discovered (including in Belgium poison gas cannisters from WWI, rusting away in hillsides and fields since 1918).

If we can't clean up the debris from WWII in 65 years, how is Cambodia, far poorer and less congested, going to clean up from the Khmer Rouge?

Rob said...

You will find a lot of Australians and and Australian donations in Cambodia and Vietnam. After the vietnam war a large number moved here as refugees, in fact they were the first major group of non-european settlers to be allowed in, in around 100 years thanks to the White Australia Policy (prior to that lots of chinese minors were around for the gold rush).

Australia has a large Cambodian/Vietnamese population, the current generation (20-40 years old say) are starting to even contribute to the celebrity chef, comedian and acting world of Australia. I think there is also a bit of a sense of guilt (being involved in the war) and so people feel the need to fix the mess!

Rob said...

I should clarify they were chinese miners not minors, although I'm sure some kids cam over too!