Saturday, January 28, 2012

Khmer Wedding: The Sequel

One of the Khmer actors
Not really the sequel but the engagement that I wrote about a month ago was very elaborate and wedding like with the tent in the street and all the loud music, but the wedding was this last weekend and I was there.  The invitation was really a little booklet with pages in Khmer and English in silver and pink.  They set up the tents on Thursday night and Friday morning the music started at 5:30am.  I had to go to work but by 7am a crowd had gathered and Pov and her man were dressed in gold.  When I came back at 3pm they were in silver and on Saturday morning in pink or salmon.  Then Saturday night, gold again and then later in white.  The invitation was for the dinner at a reception hall and all of us who live in the apartment house went.  My neighbors Ai and Rith and Claude all sat together at a table with a bunch of Khmer guys and had a nice time.  The food was a little difficult for me but the spectacle was nice to be a part of.  Rith, who is Cambodian, explained a lot of it to us.  First of all weddings used to take a week  and each day there was a different ceremony and the bride and groom wore different colors.  Then the war came and that all ended.  Now it is coming back but not over 7 day but two or three.  I really enjoyed Friday night.  I went out to the AK for my usual wine tasting and when I got back the activities here were just getting underway.  There was a stage set up and flat screen TVs in the tents and music and actors.  Pov and groom and wedding party sat up on stage and there were five actors who put on  this great performance.  I was just standing there watching it all start and then got invited to sit at a table with all these young Khmer guys.  None spoke English and my Khmer has progress from one word, akoun (thank you)  to maybe five phrase so and I can count up to six as in bprahm moouy Becks.  Well no Becks but Heineken.  Me and the Heineken boys did a lot of toasting and laughing.  One guy was tailor and I am sure he would like to make me a shirt, at least I hope that's what he was trying to say.  Well Khmer style after a toast you drained your glass, I decided to remain a little more barrong (western) and just take a sip.  All during this the actors on stage are putting on this performance that could be understood in all languages.  Two beautiful women and two clown like men and then an old man.  They sang and danced and argued and joked.  Maybe mimicking married life.  Reminded me of Everyone Loves Raymond. The two clowns wore makeup that made them look like Charlie Chaplin.  They would ask member of the wedding party to join them center stage and some really racy stuff would ensue and all of us would laugh.  Cambodians are really very modest but this seemed to be a place and time to talk and point to naughty parts and the guest just laughed and laughed and so did I.  The Heineken boys all stood up and toasted.  The bottom line was that I drank too much beer and think I thanked mom and dad (akoun and lia haeay) and the next thing I remember the music started up at 5:30am Saturday morning (WTF).  Not exactly sure when Pov got married and I missed the 7 am procession but they were in salmon costumes when I got there around 9am.  I had a lot of school work so I went into school to finish my comments and grades in a place where I could hear myself think and by the time I got home everything was moving from the street to the reception hall.  Pov the wedding party were all in bicyele powered tukutks and set off to the dinner in a procession.  We (Ai, Rith, Claude and I) arrived later and greeted the bride, groom, moms and dads, wedding party.  Lots of pictures taken.  Claude wanted to kiss the bride but everyone said NO!  Pov had so much makeup on and diamonds glued to her face that I am sure that Claude would have come away with part of it if he kissed her, but aside from that, you don't kiss the bride in Cambodia.

Ai and Rith
Too sexy for my shirt?
 My shirt.  When Chris was here he and Claude and I walked up to the Central Market.  He wanted to do some shopping for home and I needed a shirt for the wedding.  The Central Market is really beautiful.  Unlike the other markets that are just put together with tin roofs and are dark and crowded, the Central Market was build in an art deco theme and is large airy building and painted yellow.  Like the other markets though it is fun to browse and bargain.  The rule for me seems to be if I slow down I usually buy.  The young sales girls are really very charming and the less you want something the lower the price gets.  Well there is this one sales girl who totally has my number and I have bought clothes there before.  So I tell her about the wedding and that I want to buy a wedding shirt.  Claude adds that he want to look sexy.  Well she is really good and says I look sexy already.  So anyway we are all kind of joking and then she get this green shirt, no collar and funny buttons.  I've seen it at wedding so I buy it.  Just for fun I ask her if she would like to come with me, "no I'm busy that day", but I didn't tell you which day it was, "I'm busy a lot" was her reply.  Well Chris and Claude are cracking up at my foolishness and her agile replies.  But I did have the shirt and put it on to go to the dinner.  When we met up with Rith, who is dressed like all Cambodian men, dark slacks and a collared long sleeve shirt, he says "Nice shirt".  I got a lot of stares at the reception and began to notice that the only ones wearing a shirt like this was the wait staff and bus boys.  Theirs were red and my green.  
      No one seemed interested in staying late for the dancing except for me and I was afraid that if I stayed around that they would ask me to bus the tables so we said our goodbyes.  I have another chance to stay late at a wedding because I got invited to Aka's wedding next weekend.  She is one of the young girls who works at the AK and there will be lots of barrongs their so someone will stay late I am sure.  I am going to where dark slacks and a long sleeved collared shirt and if there is a story that comes from it I will title it Khmer Wedding: The Sequel II. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

7th Grade Field Trip

Riding the bus
7th Grade Field Trip, just think about it for a second and you might agree with my initial reaction, DON'T DO IT.  Both my heart and head said so but it seemed I had little choice.  Shooting off my toe, jumping in front of a tuktuk, getting stranded on a tropical island;  none seemed to be a viable options.  It was either get on the bus or lose your job, and I am making over 57,000,000 a year, so on the bus I went. 

Early on there were some encouraging signs,I was to go with the 7th grade and I really like the 7th graders and the other three staff members, Gayla, Joey and Sambath are all pretty cool.  So off we went at 7am the first day back from vacation on a seven hour bus ride into the provinces.  Only 12 of the 24 7th graders could make the trip so there was plenty of room and once away from Phnom Penh the country side is really beautiful.  Rice fields and small farms all with wandering cows and tall palm trees.  Our destination was Jombok Haos and the theme was team building through activities that included some pretty challenging stuff.  Jombok Haos is part of an NGO that owns hundreds of acres of forest and is set up to accommodate groups of up to 50 people.  It is not club Med by any means but built and maintained in a very environmentally friendly way.  The sleeping areas are up on stilted buildings and underneath the largest were tables where we ate and next to that a fire pit and than a outdoor kitchen.  Not so much different from a summer came in the U.S.  "Showers" were just a big cistern of water with a screen in front. A pitcher of water gets you wet, soap up, then rinse off.  Don't use too much shampoo was the advice which didn't apply to me so much.  Kind of primitive but ok, mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets. The generator come on at 6 and off at 10.  We arrived and got settled and then played some games that all revolved around principles, like communication, trust, cooperation etc.  The kids were very reserved and kind of quiet and cautious.  There was a blind walk activity and a swinging bridge that was kind of scary.  I'd say that after the dinner everyone was tight and tired.

Heading up to the Gibbon's Swing
The next three days' activities all required harnesses because we were going up high.  I'm not too sure about this forest but I think it would be called an open deciduous tropical forest.  Deciduous is what a dentist would call your baby teeth because they fall out, so too with the leaves.  In the northeast they fall because it gets too cold, here in Cambodia because it gets too dry.  It hasn't rained since November and won't until March, the forest is very dry and lots, not all, trees are dropping their leaves.  Open because it is low growth interspersed with just massive beautiful trees. They won't have their first branches until 100 feet up.  Most of the platforms we did our activities from were maybe 60 feet off the ground.  That's really is pretty high and the climbing up is kind of scary and strenuous.  "I (We) can do it" was the theme and I really wanted to.  The kids were all supportive of each other and kind of protective over me because I was "old",  "I'm not old I would say, just older than you, and I can do it."  On one platform you had to jump to a wooden bar and hold on and swing, very scary just to be at the edge of the platform and then to jump into space. This was called the Gibbon's Swing.  Then the Giant Swing.  Using a pulley system everyone pulls one person up to maybe 40 feet off the ground and then they release.  A really thrill and you can't help but yell or scream.  MAMA seemed to be a common exclamation that would get us all laughing.  Gayla, our trapeze performer, did the Gibbon's swing hanging from her knees and the Giant Swing superman(woman) style.  Show off.  There was an incredible zip line that was just a thrill, next time I'm going to open my eyes. 

At the beginning of each session we played some warm up games that really started to make us laugh.  All these levels of competency were starting to show.  We had to maintain a clapping rhythm and when called on answer a question or answer yes while nodding no.  Well although I am pretty good at identifying bird, none of my Irish genes prepared me to keep a rhythm let alone answer questions in time.  How we all laughed when we couldn't respond to the simplest of questions and to the back of the cue we went.  Makes me think what it is like when I call on someone in class.  Hey it was ok to get it wrong, it was about participation and trying.  I remember in graduate school a study of wolves asking the question, what made the alpha male and alpha female dominant?  The answer has always stayed with me; it was not strength alone but caring and kindness.  They would spend time with lower ranking members of the pack and play fight, protecting them, including them.  Their high position came from a sense of themselves, how they would be aware of the other members and be inclusive.  Well our little pack was learning about looking out for one another, accepting and appreciating strengths and weaknesses, kindness and cooperation; so nice to see and feel these important qualities emerge. 
View from a treetop platform with the larger trees towering above

I'm not going to mention any kids names for fear of getting a story wrong or leaving someone out but I found out so much about my students during our short time as a pack.  And without having to ask a lot of stupid annoying questions. And they wanted to know about me too! I do have to mention Joey, computer teacher, 24 years old and just a star to all of us. (Reminds me of my son David).  Did all the activities one handed so he could video, found snakes and spiders and can speak Khmer and the kids all loved him.  Then there was Sambath, the first person I met at the airport in August.  PE teacher, maybe 25 but 14 at heart.  Super athlete but not so good at heights.  On our last night we played a dancing game where we all had to dance then stop when the music stopped.  Well Sambath is a great dancer, and funny and dances way too fast and would never stop when the music stopped.  He had us laughing and laughing and trying to copy him but he was way too good for me. 

The 7th Grade and some of the Jombok Haos staff
The final activity following the dance was up at one of the swing areas in the dark.  We sat with the largest tree.  We first asked the tree if it was OK and how old are you?  It answered so slowly we figured it was trying to tell us it was pretty "old", I had to add, "not old, just older".  Then Gayla lead us in what she calls "mindfulness" in her life skills classes at school.  In the dark we sat there, all together and by ourselves.

After 30 years of teaching I think more now than ever about what is important to learn.  Of course the Kreb's Cycle in aerobic respiration is near the top, but there are other things too.  Information and skills will take you places but what will you be like when you get there?  We are taught a lot that helps us succeed but where are the instructions to make us happy?  Thank you Jombok Haos and the 7th Graders and Gayla and Joey and Sambath for sharing with me a wonderful week of lessons in happiness.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Angkor Wat

Climbing up to the high inner courtyard at Angkor Wat
If Christmas was non-traditional, than Angkor Wat was pretty incredible.   Michael from Koh Rung emailed me the day we got there to say Angkor Wat was magical and mystical.  Being a curmudgeon and a skeptic by nature I bought into none of this.  I only thought of it as another example of how egotistical and vain we are and how we build these monuments, many in the name of religion, to enslave and keep the pawns busy so they don't have the time or energy to organize an "occupy" movement.  I think of the Shelly (Keats)  poem Ozymandias "look on my work ye mighty and despair".  I know what you are thinking, I must be a fun guy to travel with. 

Looks like the Ents from The Lord of the Rings
Angkor Wat is a religious site built a thousand years ago by the Khmer King Javaryman VII. It is the largest religious structure in the world and has been in continuous use since it was built.  Wat means like temple or pagoda and on the grounds monks live and there is a school too.  Just a little background info, Who is in China, Wat is on second and Why was thrown out on third.  Angkor Wat is the best preserved of maybe twenty pagodas in the National Heritage Site which is called collectively Angkor Wat.  Some have not been used for hundreds of years and some, like  Bayon, is in the forest and giant trees are rooting through the foundations of the structures.  All are surrounded by moats that are almost too big to see as moats and then outer walls and then inner courtyards and then the pagodas themselves.  These were the capitals of the ancient and powerful Khmer Kingdom.

On the river
The Frangipani
 Chris and I left Phnom Penh early of Friday morning on the fast boat to Siem Reap.  It was really a great trip. Up the Mekong River basin traveling at maybe 30mph, the view of the river became something from another world.  Fishing boats, water buffalo, rice patties.  Then on to Tonle Sap, the largest lake in SE Asia.  We lost our view of land and seemed to be traveling fast but going nowhere. We were traveling in time and space but in what direction?  Then to Siem Reap and out hotel, the Frangipani.  Ai and Rith, my upstairs neighbors are managers, and it was fun seeing them there and the 10% discount was nice too.

A good example of temple creep
Which century?
Still smiling after all these years
Angkor Wat
Wat could be more fun?
We took the half day tuktuk tour the next day and my generally dour nature seemed to be confirmed.  Enormous and impressive for sure, but why?  Crowded and hot and exhausting.  Got back to the Frangipani around three and spent the rest of the day dozing by the pool.  Now a pool was structure I understood.  Chris wanted to do the entire park the next day by bike.  Ok, but it is hot and aren't you tired and isn't there a beer called Angkor?  Well he seemed to agree but off we went on bikes the next morning and we decided to to the grand tour, maybe 25 miles.  The roads were flat and smooth and the air surprisingly cool as long as you kept pedaling.  There were Wats everywhere, not just on second, and Why, still not sure. The country side was beautiful and ancient and mystical and magical.  After stopping at every Wat, we just began to slow down as a sign of respect and then just pedal right by, the joke was SAME SAME and temple creep.  The forest would open up to rice fields that went to the horizon with water buffalo and workers, no tractors or motos or trucks.  Back to the pool with a greater appreciation of Angkor, beer, that is.  Next day bikes again, but only to Angkor Wat.  We never went into the pagodas but walked the grounds, sometimes followed by monkeys.  It was such a powerful place, to be in the presence of this human endeavour and surrounded by equally impressive massive trees, as old and more complex.  On the way back we stopped at the National Museum and found out more about Angkor Wat and the entire complex.  No mention of enslaving and conquered peoples to build the Wats.  The moats were not defensive but to control water for the cultivation of rice.  Jayavarman VII built rest stations and hospitals all throughout the empire so people could safely travel to Angkor Wat.  The huge battle scene on the interior wall was not a depiction of war but the struggle between Vishnu and Shiva, the creator and destroyer.  One hundred and something soldiers and eighty something minor deities pulling in one direction on a snake in bas relief with an equal number pulling in the other direction.  Above the epic battle between life and death, and because of the struggle, were the Aspara, the fairies, the angels, the dancers in fantastic costumes and poses.  I can only think that they are the ones that cause us to write on our bumper stickers "preform random acts of kindness".  The Aspara are our connection to that other world, they are art and compassion and humility and kindness. They are beauty.  Beyond the rational world, yes Michael, magical and mystical, thank you for planting that seed.

My beer is Angkor, the enlightened beer
Every Khmer person, our tuktuk driver from the bus to home, the waiter at the Boddhi Tree, seemed to  understand what I was saying about how incredible Angkor Wat was.  I said you are so lucky to have that in you culture.  They said, yes we are.