Friday, March 26, 2010

Let's Dance!

Many things in Cambodia seem temporary – the wooden houses, mud roads, not to mention shaky hospitals, they don’t really feel built to last. This, together with the country being effectively only 30 years old having been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, can give the impression that there’s nothing longstanding here.

Of course some Khmer culture has survived, and it stretches back a very long way. (I find it useful to remind myself that London was still a poxy village when the Angkor empire stretched from Vietnam to Laos, Thailand to Burma). But apart from monuments such as Angkor Wat, this cultural heritage is not always easy to find. Granted, the beautiful script of the Khmer language goes back centuries, but there’s not much to be found where I’d normally look for cultural heritage - literature, arts or crafts, or even music.

But dance there is!

During my language training in the town of Kampong Cham we were lucky enough to visit a project which was training children in traditional dance – keeping alive the ancient art, and also more practically giving them a skill to secure their own future.

It was really beautiful – dressed in colourful silk costumes and accompanied by drums and flutes, the movements were amazingly graceful. There was much twirling of the writsts and bending-back of the ankles, done at improbable angles usually reserved for yoga teachers or wayward skiers.

It was fun too – the dances told stories of life in Cambodia, including love and war, but also more everyday activities looked fantastic when put to dance – my favourite was the planting of the rice crop, a flurry of whirling and dipping. I also loved the monkey dance, mainly as the masked boys aping around were clearly having so much fun.

This kind of dance is called ‘Apsara’, which I understand means ‘angel’. There are bas-relief carvings of Apsaras at Angkor, and King Jararvanman is said to have had 4,000 dancers at his royal court. Watching the performance, it struck me that there are interesting comparisons between the conventions of the dance and those of Cambodian society today – particularly the controlled emotions, fixed expressions, grace, deference and lack of physical contact.

The dancing during Chinese New Year also has a long heritage, with Chinese culture still enjoying a strong influence in Cambodia. I watched several troupes surrounding elablorately costumed tigers (played by two dancers, front and back, like a pantomime donkey but rather more graceful). The general theme seemed to be to prance around to cymbals and drums until somone let off a load of firecrackers - great fun!

My personal experiences of dancing in Cambodia have been limited, and not always very Apsara-like. I have also ‘gone out dancing’ to a few clubs here, the most notorious being Heart of Darkness in Phnom Penh. Once associated with drugs and gangsters, it’s now fairly tame, apart from the heavy dancy beats – my Flashdance routine was wasted on them. The floating Pontoon venue was more fun, and a Cambodian club in Siem Reap club even played us some western boogy music before moving on to their karaoke and sexy dance competition. Of course Phnom Penh also hosts the famous Blue Chilli club, complete with lip-syncing trannies gyrating along the bar - it is performed with great gusto, but Apsara it is not.

The main place to see dance in today’s Cambodia is at weddings, and the post-meal dancing, sometimes to a live band, does have similarities to the Apsara, with the twirling hands, graceful movements and modesty in avoiding physical contact. The nearest you can get to a clinch is an almost motionless waltz-like slow dance – I can’t say my attempt was particularly romantic, but then it was with a rather plump old Khmer gentleman.

Dance in Cambodia has been much more widespread and varied than I had imagined, and with so much seeming to be impermanent here, it does seem to provide interesting links to the country’s past. Are you ready for Strictly Apsara?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A blog about blogging...

Why blog? For me, it’s for two (quite different) reasons.

Firstly, selfishly, it’s for me. My blog is my diary, a record of some of the things I’ve seen, done or thought about. I’m lucky to be having so many new, exciting, sometimes downright weird experiences here. But what is wonderfully fresh now will quickly be forgotten or start to seem normal – so I want to record things to capture the moment, like taking photos I suppose.

So it’s pretty selective, arbitrary, maybe rose-tinted, maybe even fictional – but then the same goes for diaries (and even photos) doesn’t it?

As with a diary, the actual process of blogging can be both helpful and therapeutic. The act of putting thoughts into words makes me reflect on things. If I can write them down and make it in some way readable, then hopefully it’s because I’ve managed to make some sense of things in my head.

But also, dear reader, it’s for you - it’s not just a diary, it’s a published blog, and the public nature of it is important. I started writing things as a good way of letting friends and family know what I’m up to – so maybe it’s basically just a nicely-formatted group email?

Hopefully there’s a little bit more to it than that. For example, in principle you can add a comment at the end and get into a discussion. Unfortunately this doesn’t work too well here on - despite being Google-affiliated, it’s seriously difficult to use. If I had a bag of rice for every time I heard ‘I tried to post a comment on your blog but...’

Whilst I’m slagging off this site, in answer to the other question I’m often asked: no, I’ve no idea what being a ‘follower’ means. It’s certainly not required in order to see the blog, and I don’t think needed to comment (though you do seem to need a Google account). As far as I’m aware, followers don’t get any kind of alert when a new blog is posted, though it seems pretty obvious that this should be offered. What I can tell you, fairthful followers, is that you do get pride of place at the end of my blog, and for some reason it's made me very happy to see the number creep up from a woeful one to a nicer nineteen...

If it makes you feel any better, publishing on isn’t easy either – buttons are scattered randomly, photos jump around, and the font / spacing of words arbitrarily scrambles on publication. The technical term, so I hear, is a lack of WYSIWYG functionality – it’s not ‘what you see is what you get’. So, technically, the geeky programmers who wrote this crap should get off their joysticks and make my blog work properly. And probably take a shower and buy some Clearasil whilst they’re at it.

The public nature of blogging can also be a dilemma for bloggers – just how honest should we be? Should I name names? How rude can I be about people? The dilemma for me here is real - there are many great things about Cambodia, and perhaps I need to celebrate them more. But there are also many bad things – poverty, pollution, corruption, the bloody roads, to name a few – and I want to let rip about these too.

However, despite my end-of-blog disclaimer disassociating myself from VSO (how could they possibly disagree?), it is a tricky balance. How much should I write about the state of healthcare here, knowing it won’t be pleasant reading for colleagues here. I’m planning to write a blog shortly on one of the hottest topics here, corruption - how much should I say? Should I let rip? Or should I be careful, talk rather of ‘good governance’, make sure I don’t embarrass anyone, particularly my kind employers who got me here and are trying so hard to improve things?

Well, for now I’m happy to walk the line (not always toeing it). You’ll know something bad’s happened if I don’t keep publishing blogs every week (as I have resolved to do). Or if the next one steers way too clear of controversy and talks about something like dancing – watch this blogspace!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fridges, Hitches, Pictures - Just another ordinary weekend in Thmar Pouk village

The weekend begins well – on Friday I travel the 45kms up the bumpy, dusty track from Sisophon town with my nursing colleague Alison, not by the usual moto, but rather the luxury of a taxi (albeit the same Toyota Camrey which broke down twice on our last trip). I’m on a high - I’ve just sealed a deal to buy a fridge, and have it delivered it all the way to my village – goodbye icebox!

Arriving at the hospital is a disappointment though – it was the day after a holiday, and 11am so rice-eating time, but all the same we hope to see some staff on the wards. There is none. That’s right, in the entire hospital, there is not one single member of staff to be found. Surprisingly, the patients seem happy enough – probably used to it – the main concern being a good view of the medical ward telly to watch a khmer soap opera. The plot includes a big wedding (how lovely), so our visit provokes less amusement than usual.

After a lip-smacking pumpkin and noodle lunch things get better – the hospital director and head nurse welcome us warmly, though we still struggle to tease out exactly what they want us to do here. We have lots of ideas, but the whole point is that they know the local priorities better than us, so we really want their input.

Friday night brings the realisation that weddings won’t be restricted to the telly this weekend. With help from banks of speakers pumping plinky-plonk and heavy beats, my quiet Friday night reading has an unwelcome soundtrack. As the rainy season approaches there seems to be a rush to get hitched as quickly as possible. I will step up the rain dancing.

Saturday therefore begins at 4.40am, thanks to wedding noise. There are at least two, either side of my house. Warm congratulations to both. At least I’m up in plenty of time for the delivery of my new fridge.

Now there’s nothing wrong with my ice bucket, if you don’t mind slightly soggy pumpkin of an evening. And I don’t know anyone else in the village with a fridge, so it’s certainly an unnecessary luxury. I’m not even sure if it will work, as electricity is sporadic and I’ll probably blow the lot when I plug in. On the other hand every other volunteer I know has one, and I decided in a toddler-like moment of envious foot-stomping that this just wasn’t fair and I wanted one too. So I wait expectantly.

Before the fridge, an unexpected morning visit: Chhanty, the hospital cleaner who has a long-standing arrangement to give my house a weekday once-over, has decided my bathroom is unacceptably dirty. She’s right, and does a fine job of buffing it up with fabric conditioner, which does the job nicely. A weekend bonus!

It’s hot now – sweatily, lethargically hot, but I rouse myself for a bike ride in the midday sun – only one Englishman, but plenty of mad dogs. The roads are bumpy and dusty (and get far worse once it rains), but cycling round the village is a great way to observe life and take some pictures, whilst offering amusement to the locals.

My afternoon read continues the cycling theme – I’ve just started A Dragon Apparent, the memoirs of Norman Lewis as he travelled around Cambodia in the early 1950s. From the first chapter: “a bus, sweeping out of a side-street into the main torrent, caught a cyclist, knocked him off, and crushed his machine... the bus driver, jumping down from his seat, rushed to congratulate the cyclist on his lucky escape. Both men were delighted, and the cyclist departed, carrying the wreckage of his machine and still grinning broadly. No other incidents of my travels in Indochina showed up more clearly the fundamental difference of attitude towards life and fortune of the East and West”. Promises to be an interesting read.

In the evening I have a call from home, this time from Tracy, always welcome despite the dodgy line. I call back, but run out of phone credit. Undaunted, I seize my Petzl e+lite torch, a great present from my mate Nick, and venture into the darkness. But my landlord spots me (he spots everything) and makes it clear that the mean streets of Thmar Pouk are no place for the likes of me in the depths of night (8pm). He therefore kindly holds my hand all the way to the fancily entitled Pheap Mun Mobile Phone Shop. The phone companies provide impressive shopfronts but it’s actually just an old shack underneath (not unlike the fancy fascias on the rather basic mobile phones).

And it’s Sunday already. Another 4.30am start. I grumpily emerge, and decide that at least I will try market in the morning for a change (I usually go after work). And what a lovely surprise! – so much more happens early on. There are bananas (a bit crunchy, but yellow and banana shaped). And a waffle lady – coconut flavoured, cooked on a black iron over charcoal. And, joy of joy, an old geezer on a moto with bread - I buy his last two baguettes for 2,000 riel, just half a dollar. It’s only on the way home that I wonder if he was actually there to sell stuff or just passing through!

I get another unexpected visit from Chhanty and her sister – this time to show off her new baby girl. I do some appropriate cooing and take pictures, whilst they have a poke around at my stuff and ask twenty questions when they spot pictures of Katja - the idea of me having a girlfriend gives them fits of giggles. I’m bracing myself for further grilling next visit: why she no here? why you no child? And, of course, why you no wedding?

I’ll do some more reading today, go on another bike ride, finally arrange pictures of friends and family, finish this blogging stuff and hopefully catch up with Kelsey, the village’s other barraing, to watch a dvd. Sadly I won’t be Skyping home to my parents or brother / Sasha / nieces as there’s no internet at weekends here. And neither will I be arranging goodies in my new fridge – after some confusing calls with my new phone credit they now seem to need cash up front. Another unwelcome hitch, but a temporary reprieve for the icebox - and a nervous wait for my pumpkins.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Moral Dilemma 1: Begging - what would you do?

I’m sitting in a restaurant in Siem Reap – though this applies to the bars of Phnom Penh and no doubt the beaches of Sihanoukville. Cambodia has a few tourist spots but plenty of poor people – so wherever you sip your beer you’ll pretty soon be approached by a beggar.

So do you give them money? Should you give money to beggars?

My first instinct is to give. As a human, hopefully a reasonably decent specimen of one, I find it deeply upsetting to see helpless, desperate people, and I want to help. In Cambodia, I am rich – morally I feel seriously guilty at my wealth, and practically a few notes make not a jot of difference to me.

So what’s the problem?

Perhaps the biggest issue is children. Refusing a doe-eyed child takes a heart of steel, but received wisdom here is that you should never give to children. Children should not be on the streets begging, for the sake of their own safety and hopefully education, and if you give to them you encourage them to put both at risk. Also, lurking behind the innocent child will often be a more sinister adult controlling the operation and pocketing your well-intentioned gift. However, as my fellow couch-philosopher Su rightly points out, that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak to begging children with kindness and compassion.

So ok, I don’t give to children. But what about adults?

Back in the UK, I didn’t usually give to beggars on the grounds that it “encourages begging” or “promotes a dependency culture”. This was strengthened by an assumption that the money was for drugs rather than food or shelter (though is that worse if they need it as much?). I sometimes rather haughtily gave food instead. Stacks of unread Big Issues in my room showed one outlet for my liberal guilt, and paying off the Christmas taunts of national charities also eased my conscience. But frankly I also toughened up a bit, as you do to live in any big city – I learned to walk on by.

I’ve never felt happy about it though – actually I always felt profoundly uncomfortable. Saying “I do beg your pardon, I appreciate you need this small amount of money far more than I, but nonetheless I shall not be giving it to you as I have formulated a compelling philosophical argument which demonstrates that to be the incorrect course of action for a moral agent in such circumstances”. Sounds kinda twatish. I’ve certainly never had the guts to say it out loud to an actual beggar.

And here in Cambodia I’m not sure that the same rules apply anyway. For a start there’s no welfare state to speak of, so beggars really are those who are the most desperate and needy. Disabled beggars, often with shocking deformities, are difficult to refuse - and how else would they survive? And the toothless old woman who came up to me last week hardly fitted the image of a druggie waster who I might find it easier to turn down.

So I resolved to start giving – not to children, but 500 riel (an eighth of a dollar) to whomever I can’t avoid and who I arbitrarily designate as being deserving poor.

At my little pavement cafe in downtown Siem Reap tonight I put my new approach to the test. Several thousand riels later and I was in danger of paying more in begging duty than for my delicious street food.

Maybe giving isn’t the answer?