Monday, February 9, 2009

Two Adventures

February 7

What a day! Two mini adventures. First one was in R’Ong’s home. It is almost 2.5 hours away from Siem Reap on R’Ong’s motorbike. I purchase some apples and oranges for them on the way. Their house in the countryside is typically Cambodian—wooden, placed on four stout 6ft stilts. Underneath the house are maachans lined with woven palm leaves where people sit and R’Ong’s two nephews sleep. There is R’Ong’s wife, a smiling shy woman of 22, her sister, 19, visiting from her family, R’Ong’s mother, 63, and R’Ong’s last unmarried sister, 24. The nephews stay with them because his married sisters live deeper in the countryside where there are no convenient schools. The kids are ecstatic to see their photos behind my camera.

Presently a woman carrying toddy palm juice comes along and I was offered the sweet juice as a welcome. Only I was asked to drink it, and I was not allowed to share it. Very sweet and fresh. A 4 mm long and supple red ant tries to share my juice by biting hard on my ankle. I will have my revenge later.

We are served food. Rice, a soup of small shrimps and water chestnuts, two kinds of small smoked fish, and a sauce to dip the fish in before eating. R’Ong’s sister has cooked the dishes, with R’Ong’s mother having prepared the sauce. The sauce seems to have little mustard seed like stuff floating in it. I dip the smoked fish and eat it. Slightly sour tingle on the tongue is delicious.

About half way through I suddenly discover there were some dead ants on my plate. Upon looking closely I discover the source of these—goodness gracious, the sauce is actually all dead ants, thousands of them, floating abdominal segment up so they seemed like round mustard seeds. I am fascinated. I ask R’Ong how they do it. It was R’Ong’s mother who makes these; she collects the weaver ants with their nest leaves and dips them down into oil and water and adds a bit of salt. She shows me the jar. Seeing my interest in this, she coyly tells me through R’Ong that I am welcome to make it. I smilingly refuse, citing the bite on my ankle. I dip into the sauce bowl with renewed vigor, with an enthusiasm that comes only with secret knowledge.

After lunch, I find the family is dispersed and so I too leave R’Ong and his wife discreetly for a walk into the countryside. Through the dusty farmland, parched dry, with bristles of old straw and dry mud that blows in the wind as a gray dust, I walk about a mile to a toddy palm grove. I look hard for any mine left over, but I am reminded of R’Ong’s word that he had never seen one. A gentle wind soars through the palm leaves. The wind whips up a whistle through the rope of my hat. I lie down in the shade but scrupulously avoid a site of a possible direct hit by a falling toddy palm because in Bengali being hit on the back with a thwack is synonymous with being hit by a falling toddy palm (taal). After a brief nap, I move on. Presently I surprise a few men on siesta. They are delighted to have their pictures taken. A young man takes me to his home where I take photos of his wife and three children, the oldest daughter, about six or seven, is impossibly shy.
I slowly retrace my steps, and on the way I meet a couple straining under huge loads of collected toddy palm leaves, who graciously pose for me while sweating under their load. They are evidently collecting these to mend their thatched roof.

The neighbor of R’Ong is there with his family. So I oblige them with more photos. The kids are charming. This is the gift that I find here; the excitement of the kids is priceless.

Soon we say bye to R’Ong’s family and take off on our next adventure—a trip of about 30 km to a village on stilts and submerged forest on the shore of the lake Tonle Sap.

Lake Tonle Sap is one of the world’s largest natural flood control devices. The lake is massive, almost the size of one of the great lakes. It increases its area by about 30% during the rainy season. In dry season, the lake, a part of the Tonle Sap river, flows into the Mekong. But in rainy season, the Mekong overflows and the direction of flow in the Tonle Sap reverses, thus inundating the surrounding low lying lands, providing much needed water for the agrarian economy of its shore, but protecting the Mekong delta from periodic flooding. Adapting to this natural variation in lake depth and area, the people around the lake, mostly fishermen and peasant communities, build their houses on huge stilts along most of the region and on floating drums in the southern-most region where timber is less available. There is also a massive forest on the lake shore that gets submerged at various times.

We were to visit this village on stilts. United Nations have also arranged the local fisherman community’s teenage girls to take the tourists out on dinghies into the submerged forests as part of their Women’s Empowerment project in which the aim is to build confidence by exposure and through knowledge of worldly ways of women so they do not fall victim to sexual or other exploitation by visitors. Recall that Cambodian women were exploited massively by the Cambodian army, especially by the rightist factions, during their civil war in 1990s, as a device to curry favor with foreigners.

We set off in the little motorbike, the standard here are the small 100cc ones. R’Ong’s friend has advised about a short cut from R’Ong’s village that will cut the distance by about a half.

Man! What an ordeal! Is that what one calls a road? It is fit only for the passage of Khmer Rouge guerillas! In the back of this rickety motorbike, I practice horsemanship by springing with every lurch over huge recesses on the dirt trail. Wait a moment! Trail, I said? Forget that. It is only a high embankment between two low lying areas that evidently gets flooded in monsoon, perhaps even this embankment too, because there is nothing by holes and a maze of rims of these holes that together constitute the ‘trail’, like the pitted surface of the moon. To prevent a total breakdown of my coccyx, I must use my hawk’s eyes over R’Ong’s shoulders (it is good that he is some three inches shorter) to watch for the holes, then steel my haunches to hop up and then gently lower my rump down using the thigh muscles, and you can easily imagine the enormous strain that befalls one’s knees to do that. And they said Mongols on their horses have steel for their backside. Am I glad that I endured those weeks of squats on sweaty tippy-toes in Bikram Yoga classes! This ordeal continued for over an hour, when, through the maze of potholes, vistas of murky red slushy water, and bands of sand bars, the motorbike slipping and sliding, we suddenly reach a high wall of fishermen’s stalls, with the pungent waft of drying fish in the air, around trays of Cambodian nick knacks.

Asunder are a bunch of motorized boats and row boats. The tiny row boats are plied by children, who seem to be doing nothing but playing.

The motorized ones are large, mostly used for ferrying goods, and a few for passengers. On to one of these latter we alight. The boatman takes us through a narrow channel of reeds and mangroves, snaking through sharp bends in the river, flocks of surprised storks take to their wings, we at last take a sudden turn and come upon a most incredible view.

Hundreds and hundreds of huge houses on massive stilts, all raised over the ground some ten or 15 meters high, with men, women and children bustling about on the dry land, in the tottering houses, on a myriad slender ladders. Some are mending their boats, some fixing their nets, some simply lazing about, children playing, pigs milling, a few dogs walking around with tail held high, and ducks, chickens, roosters, ducklings, chicks, running, bamboos piled high, men chiseling through logs, women washing dishes—a symphony of activities that appears to have been grandly orchestrated as if in a David Lean’s epic movie set.

Our boat winds its way through the serpentine river to the edge of the village, takes a sharp turn to the right, and then the submerged forest begins. It is curious to see these massive trees with gnarled dark trunks and twisted branches reaching up into the sky through deep water to expose their deep green foliage to the sun. We take a few more turns and suddenly the open lake looms ahead.

The lake’s enormity is stunning in contrast to the nearly claustrophobic forest, its opposite shores are way beyond the horizon, large waves roll through the tawny water, the sun is bright over the western horizon. The boatman moors the boat on a bamboo pole and cuts the engine. The only sound is that of wind, waves and screeches of a few water birds. We rock with the waves for some 15 minutes and head back. As we enter the village, the boatman shouts around for some kids who might like to take us on a dugout into the submerged forest. Most say that they are too busy and can’t take us. As we nearly give up, a pair of chirpy teenagers wave at us.

They place a palm leaf matt on the dugout and we get into it. Two sisters, Cham Li, 12, and Sarit Li, 15, take the two paddles and take position fore and aft. I sit cross legged in the middle with R’Ong. Very uncomfortable, I get into a leg cramp almost immediately. So I wave Cham away and take the paddle from her. She readily gives but as the boat careens to one side as we change position she is alarmed. The boat stays afloat. R’Ong also goes forward and takes the paddle from Sarit. The two of us are a pair of disasters—the boat immediately gets tangled among the woods.

Sarit takes over and so she and I row on. I stop rowing now and then to take a few shots, while Sarit continues to row. Both are fluent in English, but Sarit is a bit shy so she carries on conversation mostly with R’Ong in Khmer. In the mean time I have the full attention of the little one. A beguiling little devil that Cham is, she quickly instructs me on how to row, then asks where am I from. I say, “India, but now I live in America”. “Oh India, New Delhi is the Capital”. “Good”, I say, “what grade are you in?” She hedges a bit and then casually says, eight.

Almost immediately she magically brings out a stack of some 40 books and a bunch of pencils wrapped in plastic papers. “Sir, please buy these books for $20, and the children in the school will be happy”.

I am quite confused. Who is going to buy the books, who will be happy, and who gets to read them?

She is exasperated, but takes a deep breath and explains.

“Sir, you buy the books for $20, then I take the money and give the books to the children”.

I see the light; so she has become an NGO who is raising money for books for the children.

“Good”, I say, “I will buy only two books for $2”.

“Oh no, sir, how can you do that? There will be 38 unhappy children who will have no books, no pencils, they cannot go to school and study, so they will remain poor. How can you do that?”.

Nothing doing, I say, I will only buy two books. She argues with me for another ten minutes, and then takes another tack.

“Sir, will you marry a Cambodian?”

I know what is coming next, so I say, well if I do then my wife will be very, very unhappy and angry with me!

“Oh you are married, already?” She exclaims.

I say that I am not only married, I have two children who are very big, that in fact one is bigger than I am. She is even more disappointed.

“How old are you?” she asks.

“I am very old, older than you father”.

Then she asks why did I not bring my wife and children along? I explain that they have work or schools to go to. She asks what do I do, so I explain. She spies my $20 strap sandals purchased on sale in the outlet mall, then she looks at her own little feet, dark with layers of dirt, a little corn on her sole. She falls silent.

We are among the gnarled trunks of a maze of dark trees; waves push us along. Sarit begins to sing—what a gem of a voice she has.

“You can’t sing like your sister,” I tease Cham. Cham shows off. I say, “you know the words but she sings better”. Cham makes a face at me. I say, “you will need to grow up and practice singing more, so you can also sing like your sister”.

The two sisters are suddenly all excited; they have discovered a fishnet in the water which they lift at bit and found little silvery fish stuck to the net. They excitedly call a woman in a neighboring boat, who comes to investigate and harvest the catch. “Is she your mother?” I ask. “No, no, not my mother, just a neighbor”.

We turn around. Cham has a cut on her finger from the net. Sarit sharply asks her to wash it off in the water, which she does. I try to pick up the conversation again, “So what do you learn in school?”

“Oh I don’t go to school any more, I am done with school!”

“What do you mean? Why don’t you go to school?”

She suddenly gets very serious and proper, “You see, sir, we are very, very poor. I have to help my parents catch fish and do other stuff, so I don’t afford to go to school any more. I have been to school for three years, but not any more”.

We reach our motorboat. I hand out two one-dollar bills to Sarit and say that these are for Chams books. Sarit’s face lights up with a most beautiful smile as she thanks me; Cham’s attention is already taken over by her little brother who she is dragging up on to the dugout from the water. We wave one last time and the motorboat speeds away leaving the village on stilts dark against a setting sun, eerily reminding me of a Picasso’s ink drawing of Don Quixote.

The return trip is more hair-raising in the semi darkness; a big moon is up in the sky but it was not much of a help. My bottom is raw with shakes and thuds. At last to my relief we reach a paved road and speed along to Siem Reap. I invite R’Omng to an Indian restaurant. He had clearly never had Indian food before. He struggles with it, and we together manage to finish only half of what we ordered. So R’Ong takes the remainder for her friends at the guesthouse.

Tomorrow I take a bus to Phnom Penh.

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