Friday, May 18, 2012

Musings on the Kingdom

The King's cows during the Ploughing Ceremony
  I see my time in Cambodia coming to an end and I know I will miss so much that I have found here.  My understanding of the country is incomplete but I have learned a lot in the eight months.  Starting at the top, this is the Kingdom of Cambodia, with a king and queen.  Right now I am in southern Cambodia because it is the King's Birthday, a three day national holiday.  When is Obama's birthday?  The role of kings goes back to Angkor Wat and before.   All the school children here know King Cheyvoroman VII, builder of Angkor Wat, the greatest of all the kings was not only a ruler but kind of a deity.  We all got up early last week to see the king lead the Ploughing Ceremony in front to the National Museum.  Lots of pomp circumstance with the king's cows ploughing the field and then let go to feed on different kinds of grain; rice, beans, corn, etc.  After that the king will proclaim what will be planted this year depending on what they ate. Is Monsanto in on this?  My frequent rides across the river have revealed all the fields ploughed and waiting for rain.  I wonder if they will follow the king's choices on what to plant? 

One month old
I also got a chance to meet Samol's family.  Gayla and I were invited to the month after birth ceremony at his house. When infant mortality was really high, families used to wait a month before welcoming in a new baby, hence the month celebration.  Samol is such a cool guy, the Miles Davis of tuk-tuk drivers. Meeting his family was an honor.  He has two boys six and five, a little girl almost three and now a month old baby.  Too many he said to me, or maybe enough.  I told him about vasectomies, not sure if he liked that idea.  He and his wife put on the dog for us (I really hope it was chicken) and their kids were all dress up.  We brought presents for the kids, little match box cars and a wooden puzzle of Khmer letters and some clothes for the baby.  Well the boy who got the yellow car really wanted the white one and the little girl just hated the puzzle and wanted a car as well. Babies just go around naked until whenever so the clothes were kind of silly.   I should have just written each a check.  Somal lives way over on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.  He owns his own house and it was nice.  Everyone sits and eats on the floor so there is not much need for furniture.   The house is made out of wood instead of the more modern homes that are brick and concrete.  Downstairs is just one open room and has a TV while the upstairs is where they all sleep.  Nor sure where he fits in on the social/economic scale of Cambodia.  He is not poor but I think struggles.  He needs a new tuk-tuk.  He likes talking about what is going on in the world and has made a lot of connections with westerners who he talks of as friends (I hope I am included).  Samol often speaks of an American, named Alex, who is part of an organization that bring heart surgeons over to Cambodia to perform complex operation on children.    He showed us pictures of his wedding and in the wedding was the head of the NGO that he worked for at that time.  He values education and pays for his oldest son to go to a better school.  

Samol and family

Phnom Penh seem from across the Mekong
I can't help but think what life will be like for Samol's kids.  There is a bright future here with each generation having more, but more of what?  I ride along this beautiful road through rural Cambodia.  People are nice and welcoming.  Although in some places they is no electricity, they are not hungry or poor.  They have no refrigeration so no ice cream but every third house has a big orange cooler filled with ice and drinks.  I think of solar power, but for what?  They don't need hot water (I don't have hot water in my kitchen, only my shower and don't really need it), for cooking they use gas stoves or charcoal.  The impact of these farming communities  on the environment is low and if more stuff came in than they would need more electric and then AC and more power again.  I don't feel like they want to be western but I am sure that the more the kids see of this big world the more they will look at the building across the river and want to be there.   How are you gonna keep them down on the farm after they've seen TV?  Many Khmer staff here at school go to their homeland for holidays to work on their family farm. There is a really color thing here, with light being better than dark.  Once I saw Sambath when he got back after the New Year's break and I said something about how "tan" he was and he said we was working in the fields at his family farm.  He also wanted to lose his "tan" ASAP.  Next to the sun block creams at the supermarket there are all sorts of skin whitening products.   

Restored store fronts in Kampot

The road to the pepper farms outside of Kep
I have  been traveling  in southern Cambodian, the towns of Kep and Kampot.  It is different from other places I've been.  Near the Vietnamese boarder and along the coast.  This area is not such a tourist magnet for westerners but more of a Cambodian vacation area.  The countryside is really beautiful with farms and very dramatic mountains.  Kep is known for its seafood, especially crab and Kampot shows some the past French colonial influence and is known for its peppers and the riverfront.  I liked seeing all the Cambodians out and enjoying their country.  A growing middle class that drives to the beach to picnic, but never sit in the sun. Not too long ago, 20 years, the terror of the Khmer Rouge was ending leaving the country in ruin.  People were not only starving but gone were all the educated, the artists, the entrepreneurs.  The country had been bombed by the US more than we know and land mines were a good reason not to leave the roadside.  Now my students come to school  with cell phones and iPad and iBooks.  One generation removed and on the way into the 21st century.  I would not be so pretentious to claim to have much of an impact here or a real understanding of the direction the country will go but I love being a witness and if anyone of my students becomes a world renown Ornithologist I might just have to take a bow.