Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sorority Sisters

This is not your average college setting.  There are no raucous parties and no missed 10 am classes because a student sleeps through their alarm.

For the past two months I have lived amongst thirty-four Khmer college women.

These women come from all across the Kingdom of Cambodia, from Battambang province on the Northern Thai border and from Svey Rieng protruding out into Vietnam and from the province of Siem Reap, home to the jungle temples of Angkor.

These women were at the top of their high school classes.  They came to Phnom Penh to study in the hopes of becoming lawyers and engineers and doctors and midwives and business women.

My two Khmer roommates wake up at 5:30. They help clean the dorm, motorbike to the local market to purchase the day’s cooking supplies, or cook breakfast for their dorm sisters.  At 7:30, having been up for hours already, they are off to class.

Their fathers and mothers are the children of the Khmer Rouge, the ones who’s own education was interrupted.  These womens' parents are proud farmers, fishermen, bakers, market fruit sellers.  These parents, from across the twenty-four provinces, hold their daughters' education on a par with that of their sons – a view that is not yet ubiquitous.

After university classes, they return to our dorm for supplemental classes and informal conversations in the afternoons and evenings.

Late at night I hold classes on figurative language, creative writing, and, for the past month and a half – Shakespeare (more to come soon).

Four times a week two of the women select an article from the Cambodia Daily (one of two English language newspapers in the country) and create a presentation for their peers.  They do background research, boil down the main issues and try to solve issues raised by the articles.

They present this– often late at night –  to couches filled with their sisters.  And then they discuss. 

Near midnight last Wednesday my dorm room was filled with women preparing and discussing and organizing their presentations.  One of my Khmer roommates discussed the Khmer Rouge employees continuing demands to be paid their salaries with two others on the floor.  Simultaneously, three of us huddled around my bed analyzing the challenges that Japanese land investments in Burma pose to local farmers. .

Between classes, we laugh a lot.  I share American idioms with my dorm-mates and they teach me Khmer tongue twisters. I now know what to say if I ever see a pregnant spider spit poison in the forest.  (Ping peang pong penh pous pruah per penh prey.)

We sit on mats on the floor eating bowls of rice with a fried fish, or cabbage salad, or sauted chicken liver and chicken feet.  On occasion I have lent a hand in the kitchen – setting the gaggle of girls who came to watch (not believing I could cook for thirty-four) to chopping mangoes and red peppers and cubing hunks of pork.   Apparently the dish – despite all the dubious predictions – was a success. 

I stay up late discussing the Vietnam War with my roommate, and I wake up early on Sunday mornings to join in traditional Apsara dancing with a small collection of women. Together we bend our fingers back and contort our limbs into stylized poses.

The Harpswell Foundation created the Boeng Trabek dormitory, the first of two for Cambodian women, back in 2006.  Besides providing a living space and a small food stipend, the foundations hopes to cultivate critical thinkers and empowered women.
There are now eighty women in all spread over two dorms.

In all my time living, traveling and teaching in South East Asia I have never met a more intellectually curious and sharp-minded group of young women.

These women are smart, curious, thoughtful, confident and most of all unendingly hardworking.

But occasionally even they need to relax.  And so I attempt to infuse a little of the spontaneity of American college experience into the rigor of our Phnom Penh dorm. 

I have whisked the girls off to join in one of the outdoor exercise classes held on the public boulevards, we have walked the streets munching steamed corn, and once we adventured out into the night to attend a traditional outdoor Khmer puppet show performance.  

One night, a few weeks ago, I called a conference of all the sisters late at night for an “Emergency Meeting.”  Confused and curious they abandoned their studies and gathered, filling the couches and spilling out to sit on the floor.   

It was exam time and all the women had tests and exams and final papers.

“At my college,” I explained, “when we got to exam time, we often did something absurd and funny to take a break from studying and let our minds relax.”

I pulled out envelopes filled with clues for a scavenger hunt and for the next hour the dorm was brimming with shrieks and laughs and the pounding of many feet as women ran up and down the dorm in search of the answers to riddles.

There may be no bleary-eyed students or booze, but in the end they are still young women: even future leaders of a struggling nation need time to do something silly.

Friday, January 25, 2013

To Market, to Market

There is a mosaic of crushed river clams on the sidewalks and streets of Phnom Penh.  Hatted peddlers traverse the city pushing blue carts spread with clams tossed in chili, garlic, salt, sugar and sometimes lemongrass.

There is a congregation of clam sellers that park their cart on a side street in the slum where I live.  In the morning the sellers can be found sprinkling spices on a line of trays.  In the evenings the trays are parked again on the street.  A collection of half-dressed children chew and suck on leftover bivalves.

During the day the clam sellers push their carts along the streets.  The sidewalks are too uneven, with upended tiles. 

Instead sidewalks are used for impromptu food stands with stubby tables and foot-high plastic stools.  Sidewalks are for hammocks slung between trees.  And sidewalks are for barbershops – long lines of barbershops: a chair, a mirror propped against a wall, a table holding scissors and razors, an awning against the sun.  Halos of black hair clippings accumulate on the sidewalk tiles.

But the real business of the city happens in the markets.

The markets of Phnom Penh are crowded, low-slung affairs with dim lighting and narrow alleys between the sellers.  There is Russian Market, named for a time when Russians dominated the foreign demographic.  The market now hosts few Russians, but many tourists and trinkets to entice them.   There is the French-colonial Central Market, painted egg-yolk yellow with a grand central hall filled with jewelry sellers and extending branches of clothes shops, pillow stands, cooking equipment, cleaning supplies and curled and pinned wigs of fake, styled hair.

Hole-in-the wall hair stands are everywhere in the markets of Phnom Penh.  Lines and lines of women being shampooed, only an aisle or two away from mattress shops, soup stands, or meat stalls with intestines strung up like tinsel.

I have woken early to accompany my roommate on the dorm’s daily shopping expedition at our local market.   Bong Trabiek market used to be a lake, now it is a maze of half-erected food stalls with narrow aisles of broken tiles and mud. 

Slabs of meat and collections of hanging pig hooves.  Troughs of flopping silver fish.  The most exuberant ones successfully fling themselves out into the muddy walkway where they writhe until the seller notices and throws them back in the trough.  The process repeats.

We amass onions, eggs, peppers, chilies, two chickens.  I lean back to avoid a man carrying an entire pig carcass, its body cleaved in two with one bloody half draped over each of the man’s shoulders.

Where in other countries I might venture into the markets for the delicious aromas and enticing platters of food, I have found that the food here is not what draws me to the markets.

Guidebooks proclaim that Cambodian cuisine is subtly elegant – and it is if you can pay for the subtlety.   The food lacks the spicy kick of Thailand or the platters of fresh spring rolls and greens common in Vietnamese cooking.   There is slow steamed fish in coconut – Amok, and sautéed beef – Lok Lak.   But food prices have continued to increase at a rate faster then the rate of income.  Khmer meals, for those without wealth, center around heaping bowls of rice and a small piece of protein – perhaps a fingerling of dried fish or a couple cubes of meat.  Perhaps this is yet another residue of years of civil war and genocide, perhaps it is a sign of an imbalanced economy.

I head to markets for different reasons.  My favorite market is a hot twenty-minute walk up Monivong road.  BKK market – a microcosm of a market on a manageable scale. 

But if one wants to take on the market of all markets, one must head to Orssay.

Orssay is three floors tall, possible four – it is hard to tell with all the stairways and warrens of stalls.  One walks through vast blocks of sections at Orssay.  You are surrounded by only moto parts, then only by raw meat, then plastic bags of rice, then glittering red and gold Chinese New Year decorations, then drapes of silk, then hanging garlands of dried fish, silvery fish, chalky white salted fish. 

Stands are small and square and sellers string hammocks up and sleep suspended among their goods.

Orssay is a market for getting lost in.  It is for pointing at and trying multi-colored jellies bathed in watered down coconut milk.  It is for navigating between muddy puddles between buckets of squirming fish and bubbling lobsters.

 It is a market for conversing (through my roommate who acted as translator) with an old women selling dried meats who insisted that I was in need of a Khmer husband and gave me, in parting, a small brilliant-red curl of dried snake.  I am still unclear if there was a direct connection. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Fried Squid and Mistletoe

Khmers do not, for the most part, celebrate Christmas.  However this does not stop the residents of Phnom Penh, including the girls in our dormitory, from donning felt Santa Hats.

The country may be 95% Buddhist, but come the middle of December the markets fill with miniature plastic Christmas trees, garlands of tinsel and mini stands of flashing, multi-colored lights.

“Happy Merry Christmas” signs abound.  Christmas songs play in all the chic cafes near independence monument.

Embracing the holiday spirit we bought a mini plastic fir tree, strung up lights and tinsel and set about making paper snowflakes – notwithstanding the fact that the girls at the dorm have never seen snow.

And then, a day before Christmas Eve, the thirty-four girls threw a Christmas party.  Preparation started early with a morning trip to the market.  There followed a flurry of meat chopping and lime squeezing. In the lazy heat of the afternoon a table was laid in the courtyard and speakers were set up. 

The spread was not classic Yuletide fare: fried squids with pepper lime sauce and chili sauce, cold nests of rice noodles –thin and latticed, hairy rambutans and fingerling bananas.  But it was certainly festive.

There was an exchange of gifts overzealously adorned with ribbons ,and lots of photographs.  And then, the dancing.

With speaker blasting and music videos streaming the girls danced late into the night – skipping and twirling and stamping.  Gangnam Style followed by Rhinana, followed by traditional Khmer Apsara dancing, followed by Bollywood, followed by Thai Pop, followed by . . . more Gangnam Style.   The usually studious and demure students danced late into the night.

New Years was spent in a slightly colder climate – amid the curving hills and towering skyscrapers of Hong Kong.

Two years ago I visited Hong Kong on the heels of contracting dengue fever.  I stayed with my Princeton roommate (who was pregnant at the time) in the heat of the summer, amidst storm warnings.  We cooked curries, indulged in cheese and pastries (Thailand lacks both) and ate dim sum and hand pulled noodles.

Now, at the end of December, Hong Kong balances on the edge of brisk and the men and women of the city don jackets and scarves.  I again stayed with my roommate Shobi and was introduced to the newest member of her family: nearly two year old Rania.   I have become “Aunt Jess.”

In a compact two days we ate our way through many dim sums and, in a throwback to our dorm lives, sipped even greater quantities of tea.  We hiked along the Dragon’s Back trail in the mountain over the city and then through the dense forest of apartment skyscrapers many with protruding poles of laundry that flapped precariously in the wind, thirty stories high or more.

For our New Year’s meal we taxied to the heart of the city to an elegant eight-table restaurant serving up the spiciest Sichuan food I have ever consumed.  We ate our way through an intimidating twelve courses, which quite literally brought tears to my eyes.  The most interesting was a fried chicken with a Sichuan pepper: rather than having the expected burn, it numbs your lips and then makes them feel as if they were actually bubbling and frothing. 

Driving back to Shobi’s apartment New Year’s Eve, I reveled in the holiday spectacle – a light show of skyscrapers decked like Hallmark Holiday cards with building-sized flashing Santas, reindeer, wrapped presents and tree bobbles. 

We welcomed 2013 on the roof of a Hong Kong Apartment – shivering in the cold, watching fireworks burst over the metropolis.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Going with the Flow

There are two small boys, heads shaven, draped in robes of orange, taking pictures of each other.  They stand on the cement slope leading down to the muddy Tonle Sap River patchy with clumps of detached riverweeds.

For half the year the riverweeds float south, past the capital.  But, the Tonle Sap is fickle and twice a year changes direction, flowing south during the dry seasons and north – all the way to Tonle Sap Lake just south of Siem Reap and the jungle temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom – in the midst of the monsoons.  The riverweeds go along for the ride, floating back and forth in indecision.

It is early January and the river is flowing south.  After traveling just under a hundred miles, the Tonle Sap arrives here, at the promenade of downtown Phnom Penh and caresses the edge of the city before merging with the Mekong.  

The pedestrian boulevard along the riverfront is wide, tiled and made for ambling in the Parisian style.  It is perhaps the single grandest architectural relic of colonization left in the developing city.  A line of palms runs up the center providing little meaningful shade.  When it is cool, in the early morning and evening, the walkway fills: with street vendors – hawking grilled corn and roasted tarantulas, with families out strolling, and with competing aerobic classes dancing out a radio station’s worth of beats.

But now, in the heat of the day, the shadeless quay is empty save for a few wandering tourists and a handful of street children selling bracelets and pirated copies of books detailing the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

The road along the quay is lined with hotels – high class and sleazy intermingled.  Across the doorway to one is hung a large banner: “Welcome Mr. Obama.”  There are bars and pubs and an abundance of pizza joints offering “Happy Herb Pizza Specials” in bold lettering.

Across the river sits Diamond Island.  A spit of land filled with constructions sites and half-erected buildings that might one day become a complex of luxury hotels.  The girls at the dorm like to cruise the island on their motos on days off.  Two years ago, while living in Thailand, I first read about the island when, during the November Water Festival celebrating the Tonle Sap’s reversal, a stampede erupted and 350 Khmer were crushed to death under the feet of thousands.

Up river, closer to the ill-fated bridge, a sewer valve opens and putrid canal water, thick and opaque, gushes out into the river. 

Boats cruise up and down the river.  Large metal barges puffing smoke and shallow fishing canoes with colorfully painted tips.  There are few boats of sizes in between.  The fishermen pull up along and moor along the riverweeds that are profuse at the edge of the Tonle Sap.  There are fishermen too – both men and women – who walk down to the water’s edge with extended fishing poles.

 Near me, along the quay, where a row of international flags flap overhead, the two young monks are still taking pictures.  They have stopped posing for each other.  Instead they crouch down, sitting back on their heels, orange robes billowing around them.  They hold the camera out, training the lens on the boats and the fisherman and Diamond Island and the Tonle Sap and all the floating riverweeds.  Snap – they capture the scene.