Thursday, February 12, 2009

"They had a plan!"

February 11

At 8 in the morning my motodupe driver arrives. The woman from Perth in Siem Reap to Phnom Penh bus had told me about salt flats near Kampot. We travel some 12 kilometers to a flat landscape divided into myriad neat rectangles, nearly all of them a shallow glass bed of salt water from the sea. People were pounding on the dry rectangles’ to make the dark soil as flat as possible; then they open a little inflow into the rectangle and salt water flows in. The heat dries by the water fast, leading to super saturated brine, and salt crystallizes out of solution. These crystals are then brushed into pairs of heaps. Then these are brushed on to two flat bottomed containers made of woven bamboo, which are hooked onto a yoke, shoulders placed underneath, lifted and carried away into a large hut for drying.

I am thrilled by the possibilities of composition and reflection—rectilinear shapes everywhere, broken by figures of workers being reflected on the mirror-like salt beds. I take out the Leica and try to get the nearest person, a slender woman of some thirty odd years into a geometrically strong composition.

But as I peer into her, I notice she is pointing at me and then back at her baskets and the yoke. I understand that she wants me to come closer and try lifting the yoke. I ask the moto driver whether it is ok to step over the salt bed, and he nods in affirmative. I go closer, and see the glint of smile in her eyes. Without thinking I take the yoke from her hand and try to lift it.

That was the first surprise. I couldn’t even budge the baskets with both hands placed under the yoke and pushing up. They were impossibly heavy. She started laughing, as other men and women in nearby field started laughing at me. Not to let this get out of hand, I put my left shoulder under the yoke and heaved up. The baskets were airborne, but I had not anticipated the incredible weights of these two containers filled with water-laden salt crystals. She signs me to put them down, but I start to walk towards the hut, some hundred feet or so away, my cameras swinging wildly on my right shoulder and from the right wrist. She runs after me, but I make over the slight slope into the hut and put down the baskets near the pile of salt gathered inside. She talks excitedly to the moto driver who is quite amused at all this. I am quite winded. I take a few shots inside when they empty out the baskets, which also is not a simple affair because it is impossible to lift them separately by hand, so one has to swing the yoke such that both baskets are emptied together in one fluid motion.

This gives me a totally new perspective on what people do for a living. I asked my moto driver to find out how much do they get paid for this job. 200,000r for five people for a five hour day. That makes it $10 per person per day. I do an estimate of the volume of the salt crystals in each basket, which is approximately 15 liters. Since sodium chloride is three times as heavy as water, each basket should weigh around 45 kg, making the total weight around 90 kg or close to 200 lbs. Allowing for even 25% error on the high side, its weight could be minimum 150 lbs. Imagine having to haul 150 lbs over few hundred feet over soft grounds every 10 minutes for five hours a day, and getting paid $10 for the job. If one is lucky, the moto driver points out, because no one gets this job all the time. Often, when there is rain or cloud cover for example, such that the evaporation rate slows, one does not make as much salt and so the salt field shuts down or works at reduced forces. The amazing thing for me is that a slightly built woman can do this seemingly effortlessly.

I continue shooting in the salt field. The men and women there are suddenly a lot more accessible to me; but because they pose I have difficulty catching them in good composition. They keep asking me about my home and family. I struggle on with catching them at work. After a while I give up.

It is better to remain somewhat remote if you wish to take good photographs.

After the salt flats we visit a cave with limestone stalactites and stalagmites, with an eighth century Hindu shrine with a Shiva lingam inside a terracotta construction that is partly encased in calcium carbonate crystals. This is probably one of the oldest signs of Indian influence in Cambodia, predating the oldest of the Angkorean complexes (the Roulos group) by at least a century.

A group of three young boys, ages 10 to 12, take me to the caves with a flashlight. Just before the rise of the hill, there is an area closed off with red tape with scull and bones drawn on a post—mine, they say. I just cannot believe there would be mines there, because it is squarely on a dry field of rice paddy with bristles of last season’s straws still on the parched soil. I ask incredulously, “Are there mines still there? Really?” They say yes yes in an airy way that leaves one doubtful. One normally walks up a steep flight of stairs hewn into the stones and then down into the limestone cavity, and then returns along the same path. I see an English couple following me there. But the boys encourage me to come with them out through another route, one through which we scramble up and down steep and slippery rock faces, with tiny footholds and little ledges to grip with hands. My metal lens hood bumps hard against the rock and gets a dent. The kids are horrified, and help me put away the camera inside the bag. I follow the kids through utter darkness, scampering over rocks and holes. At the bottom there is a shallow stream, on the calcite ceiling there are bats hanging, which get disturbed when one of the kids, A’p is his name, shines his flashlight. The kids talk incessantly; what do I do in my spare time—I take pictures—“I play football”, says A’p. We begin climbing again but it is a very short way up. At the end is a shallow opening through which I will not pass with the camera bag on my back, so the kids take it from me and go through first. Then they excitedly take the camera out and asks me to fix it so they can take a picture of me emerging. The take two shots. I think those are the best shots of me in ages.

On the way they show me this and that. I ask whether seriously there are still mines there, and they smile and say, that indeed there were mines there but those have been removed. They show me an egret, and a small mint garden, and gives me a little bunch of mint leaves to take home as a memento. They ask me repeatedly to bring my family here next time, so they can take them into the caves.

Back at the moto, they show me a huge tamarind tree and as my eyes light up, they throw stones and shoes into the trees to drop ripe tamarinds to the ground. They break one and offer me. I eat without wincing—that is my specialty—and the kids go wild. They keep feeding me tamarind, and then packs me a whole bunch to take with me. I give them a dollar for the trip and the flashlight, and move on.

We drive another 10 or so kilometers to Kep, the seaside town where Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese army had showdown in the early eighties and that encounter had wrecked the town. I see huge compounds with intricately curved ironwork gates but with nothing inside, facing the sea. An island looms in the distance. Along the beach are lines of restaurants. I eat a calamari soup, while the moto driver eats fried rice. I try to pump him about his days during the Khmer Rouge times. Here at last is a man who slowly opens up during my hard grilling. Perhaps because he had seen me carry the salt bags, perhaps because he had seen me eat tamarind out of the boys’ hands. But he began to describe what it was like.

“Very early in 1975 they came to my village. They separated my sister, who was 15 at that time and me, 12, from our parents. Our parents were taken very far away, and separately. I did get to see them, about three, may be four times in the three years until the Vietnamese army broke up our camps. My sister was in a separate camp a few miles away, and I did see her about once in two months or so. It was very hard. Yes, of course I cried. What do you think? It was very hard work, from morning until late in the evening. No work, no food. Sometimes the bad ones would even beat us.”

“What if you walked away from the camp one day?”

He has difficulty understanding my question first. Then when I persisted, he was incredulous. “Oh kill! Just kill you!”

After the Vietnamese came, my sister and I walked home. It took us eight days of walking. When we came to the village, my parents were there, they had walked back earlier.”

“Did they cry seeing you and your sister?”

He seems embarrassed.

“How about the guards in your camp? Did they not have any brother or sister or children of their own? When they mistreated you, did they not think that someone could be doing the same bad things to their brothers and sisters?”

“I don’t know.”

“But” I say, “you were from the village, you are a Khmer, why did they do that you? I thought they were against the city people! Why did they separate you from your family?”

He struggles at first. Then he spreads his arms expansively, and says, “They had a plan, that’s what they said. They had a plan”.

I rest my case: A faith in determinism, that you can plan your life and your social structure according to some elementary ideals.

Back at Utopia, Max is cross. He doesn’t like the untimely rain. Where is the rain, I ask, it is only a drizzle. “This is not good. The whole damned weather is changed. The last rain was on December 31, can you imagine! It normally does not rain after November until June or July.” “Do you get guests even during the rains?” I ask. “Yes, but fewer; Phnom Penh professionals, fewer tourists, who want to get away from work for a while.”

You cannot get a better place than this to get away from it all. The sunset was unobservable because of dark cloud in the west. We discussed Cambodian history, and Max’s travails in the 70’s. He had run away from home at 13, then traveled all over Europe during the seventies. “A coastal person,” he described himself. He spent a lot of time in Spain and Italian coastal towns. He had spent a year in Katmandu. Ultimately he had found his calling in Indochina, choosing to marry a Cambodian woman and settling down in this little out of the way place. “There was nothing here before the French came. Just pirates. The Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Siamese, no one was interested in this area. Until the French began to establish their weekend getaways in this area.”

A glorious moon rises through a hole in the clouds. We both take photos of it, but have uninspiring results due to the deep darkness surrounding the single beacon of brightness. Frogs croak and the river sleeps as we chat in the semi-darkness over two glasses of gin and tonic. “Very colonial,” he offers. “Good against malaria,” I try. “That’s what they say, but I think it is rubbish,” declares Max.

After a bit of listening to my story of the driver, Max says, “You know, that’s what you get when you combine Taoism with Maoism”.

I don’t understand Max, so I will have to read about Taoism.

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