Sunday, June 05, 2005

Phnom Penh (Aliyah)

June 4

I’m writing from Kuthur, from the irregularly quadrangle-shaped bedroom on the roof of the LAFTI “Kremlin.” I got the penthouse! The building is really starting to grow on me, strangely. They have put up a thatched awning above the flat roof, so here on top of the building I have a very large shaded area which catches breezes but keeps out the sun, which is right now so fierce that the ground burns my bare feet as I walk (quickly!) down the stairs. I also have a wonderful sunrise view of the tank and the paddy fields, although this morning I slept through the sunrise, having taken an overnight train with Krishnammal from Chengelpattu. (Gandhi said that he was coming to meet me at the airport, so naturally I expected Amma.) Nevertheless, I was still awake an hour before Krishnammal, for probably the first and last time in my life.

Anyway, I’ll talk about my first days in Tamil Nadu later, as I should tell you a little about my experiences in Phnom Penh. Bhoomi and I took a bus there on Monday from Siem Reap. Bhoomi had only ever flown before, as it is only very recently that there has been a good enough road for buses. The bus is of a very comfortable tour-bus style, completely opposite from any Indian bus. There is no public transport system in Cambodia, which makes for clean buses but high fares, so that less wealthy people are unable to travel. Larger purchases are nearly always made in U.S. dollars. Not knowing this when I arrived, I changed money at the airport and am now stuck with $40 worth of Cambodian riels, and I have not seen anywhere to change them.

The bus ride takes six hours, owing mainly to the construction work still in progress on the road. We pass villages and a few slightly larger towns, all of which have houses on stilts. I asked Bhoomi if flooding is a big problem, and he said yes, although the rains have been sparse in the past few years, and the level of the Mekong River has decreased, due to dams upriver in other countries. The monsoon is a bit late this year, although it rains during several days of my visit. We pass rice fields not yet being cultivated, cows in some of them, water buffaloes wading in mostly dry ponds, and some of the scrawniest chickens I have ever seen (all Cambodian chickens look unhealthy, with half-bald heads and necks). Halfway along the journey we stop for a break and Bhoomi and I get out for a cup of coffee (some Cambodians, unlike most Indians, can be convinced to give you milk and sugar separate from the coffee or tea, although they often use condensed milk.) (Jothi here in Kuthur has just come by with a cup of coconut water. I am not going to spill it on the computer.) At the bus stop, there are half-a-dozen women and girls frying and selling the largest crickets I have ever seen. People are buying them by the shopping bag. They must be a specialty of the area. Bhoomi says there is one bus stop at which they sell roasted black spiders. I am not a squeamish person, nor am I an arachnaphobe, but that is one delicacy that I think I would let pass.

We reach Phnom Penh around six, and I am immediately struck by the fact that there are no pedestrians. The same was somewhat true in Siem Reap, and along the bus trip, but it is particularly remarkable here, especially since there are sidewalks on most of the streets. Motorcycles are by far the most common form of transportation, followed by bicycles. Bhoomi attributes this attitude about walking to anxiety left over from the civil war and the Khmer Rouge and fear of being without means of transport. It may also have to do with the fact that there are no buses.

Phnom Penh is a relatively clean city with fairly good air. The drivers are not as law-abiding as they are in America, but they do seem aware that the road does have rules. We go back to Bhoomi’s house, eat dinner, and go to bed.

The next morning, Tuesday, I went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. This complex of buildings was originally built as a high school, but under the Khmer Rouge regime it became a prison in which thousands of people were held and tortured under terrible conditions. Of the more than 10,000 prisoners held there, only seven survived. I walked around the buildings, set around a central courtyard, containing a playground bar which was used as a gallows. All of the buildings are covered with tangled barbed wire, as thorny as a dead blackberry thicket, and far more impassable. One room contains the photographs of all the prisoners held there. Some show children younger than ten years old. Samet, who drove me to the museum, asks me if I believe in ghosts. I answer, “Sometimes.” Even if I do not always believe in ghosts, I do believe that places have memories, and the memories of this place are horribly troubled. Every muscle in my body tenses up, and I cannot relax until I leave.

That night Bhoomi invited some of his friends over for dinner. There were five guests, not including myself, and I can only remember the name of one of them. (This, unfortunately, is far too common of an occurrence. If I met you only briefly, or even for an extended period, more than a few months ago, and you see me again, do not expect me to remember your name or even recognize you other than “because this person is talking to me, I must know him or her.” I probably won’t, and I apologize.) There were two French men, one of whom worked for UNICEF, the other I think was a psychologist, though I don’t really remember. There were three American women. One was a doctor, I think, from Seattle. (Editors’s note: This was Ellen, a social worker, who heads an NGO called “Social Services of Cambodia”.) There was a woman who had been living in Australia for several years, a psychiatrist, who was also working on a major research project about marriages during the Khmer Rouge regime. (Ed. again: This is Dr. Peg Levine of Monash University).There was also the one person whose name I do remember, because I had been looking forward to meeting her -- Beth Goldring. Beth is an old friend of David’s from 30 years ago at the University of Chicago. She is now a Buddhist nun doing AIDS hospice work in Cambodia.

During dinner we discuss the Australian woman’s research project, the government or lack of it in Cambodia, and the EU Constitution. Beth tells us her reasons for keeping her organization small and out of the sight of the Cambodian Buddhist establishment. She doesn’t want big donors running things, and she does not think much of Cambodian monks (Women cannot be ordained in Cambodia).

The next day, I go to the hospital where Bhoomi works. Some people are filming a documentary of the hospital, and want to interview him, which took much longer than he thought it would. I wander around the grounds. There are a few medium-sized buildings with flower gardens between them. There are pigeon-houses with a flock of white pigeons that Bhoomi introduced. It is quite a nice place, painted in shades of pink and full of flowers. If hospitals in the U.S. were like that, I might not mind them so much.

In the afternoon I go with Bhoomi and two other doctors to some villages, where they are going to talk to people. We have to take a little ferry boat to get to the first village. Someone does a talk about domestic violence, its causes, and various ways of preventing and dealing with it. Afterwards, Bhoomi, with his limited Khmer, introduces me as his brother’s daughter. Someone asks why I am so much paler. I say that I take after my mother, which is sort of true. We go back across the river, and drive to the ferry crossing to the next village. Here, however, the water is so covered with water hyacinths that it looks like dry land, and no boat can cross, so we return.


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