December 16, 2008

Part 5 - Water Festival (week 18)


I have had endless troubles with managing my email as Office and Vista (spawn of Bill Gates and Satan) don’t get on, and am in another long period of no internet access. This time it is largely stupid delays in getting the bill paid, and power cuts. Having regular communications makes life a lot more pleasant (although lately a lot of my communications have been the email equivalent of window envelopes, not what you need when you’re flat broke). To add to the frustrations, my long draft of ‘Notes 5’ has vanished, so I’ll start again…

In the brief time when I did have ‘net, I discovered “torrents”, the file sharing method that has picked up where the likes of Napster left off (or were cut off by the likes of Sony). Michael Crichton’s Prey was all about how computer programmers use biological principles in advanced programming, and this is how torrents work: you get a ‘swarm’ of people all passing tiny bits of music or whatever around like ‘flu in an office building. Its fascinating, and has also led me deeper in to the world of open source software. This is where a bunch of enthusiasts all pitch in to develop a program, make it freely available and gradually improve it. They have already produced a perfectly good office suite - if you don’t want to pay $150 for Microsoft’s Office just go to and get theirs for free! What gets me is that these programs (such as the ones I’m using to download and edit music) are easier to use, more stable and fuller featured than stuff you buy, and its all done by hobbyists. Its great to know that trains get spotted and birds twitched, but these guys have a really useful hobby, and they’re damn clever. Childhood obesity and social alienation is surely a small price to pay for such computer literacy…

Looking at all this and working with people who think a net is for fish (or with the success of our education program: mosquitoes) brings home the ‘information divide’, a new way of looking at the separation of developed and less so. As web sites get bigger and heavier they get less accessible rather than more; many aren’t worth the wait. I am becoming very tired of BBC World which seems to be a 24 hour ad for a website, its always “look it up here” and “for more information go there” - you are a freaking tv channel guys! We don’t all have ADSL blipping away in our spare room! If they spent all that air time on news stories we’d all be better informed.

Anyway, back to my corner of the world. The monsoon has come to a belated end, and the town is turning into a dust bath. It isn’t helped by the constant roadworks which have been providing an ever changing moto cross track into the town centre. At times its almost fun but tricky in the dark, especially if you haven’t seen it lately in the daylight, with huge trenches appearing across the road daily. Its not helped by the fact that when you get a rough spot and back off the throttle the headlight goes out! I bumped up the idle a bit which has helped. There is constantly a red layer forming on everything, inside the house and office almost as much as out.

Meanwhile the market has been half demolished. It consisted of a good sized concrete pavilion with a definite communist-funded look about it, propping up a slightly larger area of shanty roofs and mud baths. Now all the shanty part has been cleared and a concrete structure is going up. The stalls have moved out to a temporary ring around the site, which is actually better than the old market, with wider aisles and firmer footing, though the tarpaulin roofs are very low for a barang.

There is ever increasing crime and violence in town, with muggings, thefts and breakins all rising. A family who live near me have a farm and house about 4 km from home. One night they were at the farm, having just sold a crop and so with a sum of money on the premises; they were robbed and the whole family shot. Later the thieves realised the wife had survived and pursued her to the hospital to finish the job, which they didn’t manage. A couple of nights back someone was trying to get into my place in the small hours.

I got to see the local aristocracy at play one lunchtime; I was sitting in Gecko House restaurant when I heard the sliding of tyres and the clash of a moto accident. From my seat I saw a young teenage guy come off a shiny new moto, he soon got up so I kept out of it. Soon after a guy turned up in a Lexus and demanded to know who hit his son. The motodops (moto taxi drivers) who work from that corner said that it was the kid’s fault (he sped around the junction without looking, which is not uncommon) and the guy started belting the motodops. By then four police had arrived and when they told him not to hit them, he turned on the police, punching three of them and copping a few good ones in return. Eventually one of his associates calmed him a bit and he stalked off to his Lexus and left. Seeing him punch police with impunity is a good illustration of the power balance in Cambodia. One of the cops was my landlord!

There was a march through town in support of the rule of law and land rights. The last one of these was broken up with water cannon and tear gas. Despite some pressure to join I abstained, not for fear of some roughhouse but because it is not part of my job and so clearly outside the guidelines laid down by AusAID for my behaviour. It all went peacefully.

One of these land disputes has led to a court case, where local big shots sold off village land to a company and then stole most of the proceeds - one family was paid their share of compensation for their lost land to the princely sum of $12.50! - but the villagers took action and claimed the land back. The company agreed but (not unfairly) asked for their money back. Of course it had been milked off and spent, and the ‘elders’ objected to this being pointed out publicly and have sued for defamation. I was chatting to a British volunteer in his first week at his new job, with an organisation that is (incorrectly) blamed for promulgating a report with the slanderous claims in it. He is wondering if he’ll be behind bars by week’s end! At the end of the first day’s hearing the defendants were in custody and getting a bit of a roughing up from their gaolers, to which the assembled crowd took exception - there was a minor riot and the prisoners freed by the mob.

At the time I was in my office, which is next door to ADHOC, a human rights activist organisation. A sudden hail of gunfire caught my attention, there seemed to be at least one guy with a handgun in the street and someone else had dumped a moto and bolted. Then a pickup full of police bristling with rifles turned up and the guys at the centre of it all took off. I’m not sure what it was all about and my landlord couldn’t enlighten me. No bullets hit our building anyway.

On one of the holidays a bunch of us went down to Boeung Yak Lom, the volcanic crater lake outside town. The water is deep (about 60m) and clear, and on days like this so still that floating in the centre (with eyes hippo-like just above the surface) you can see the curvature of the earth. We shared a pot of rice wine: you buy a ceramic pot filled with sawdust and poke bamboo straws into it, then pour in water, when you suck you get wine. As it empties you just keep adding water, til eventually it loses its strength like an old tea bag. It doesn’t taste a whole lot better, but the delivery system is a bit more controlled than swilling down slugs of lao lao rice whisky from shot glasses.

In November we had the water festival, which commemorates the reversal of flow in the Tonlé Sap: for half the year it drains a huge lake into the Mekong, and for the other half fills the lake from the Mekong (which rises about 7 metres in the monsoon). Near the lake is Siem Reap and Angkor (when I first came the river was the main artery to travel there), at the junction with the Mekong is Phnom Penh, and here there are ‘dragon boat’ races and other festivities which bring around a million people to town. I dodged the crowd and went to the beach for a week. I won’t spout clichés like ‘Kuta 30 years ago’ but if you fancy a beach holiday, go before its spoilt…

On the way back I went shopping in Phnom Penh, pillows for my aching neck, a duvet (now a necessity as the weather cools) and a pair of rattan armchairs (pretty comfortable considering my meagre budget, but they took about 20km/h off the top speed of our car riding on the roof). After a week away I still had yellow-red toe nails from the Ratanakiri dirt.

We in the west are rather coddled with gadgets and stuff. I remember in Zimbabwe asking for a can opener and being met with blank looks; what’s wrong with a carving knife? And once you get the knack its not hard, maybe a bit of a tendency to take the edge off the knife. (The empty cans are less useful with the jagged edges.) In Thailand I stayed with a family whose kitchen was equipped with a goodly collection of blunt knives (from opening cans? they didn’t use many) and I was looking for a sharpening stone, gaining similar blank looks. What’s wrong with a plate? You simply turn over the nearest china bowl and hone the knife on the ring of unglazed surface beneath. This works well as a ‘steel’ but has its limits; in the end I got a cheap stone and sharpened the lot. This minor achievement must have gone to my head, as next time I got bored I completely rewired their house!

I am enjoying using my first ever meat cleaver, really good as a cooking knife but essential for my bolognaise as it’s the only way to mince meat (yes, I do buy those big chunks of pork that lie around the market feeding the flies). I gave it a quick run over the bottom of a plate and nearly took the end of my finger off practicing my ‘Asian tv chef’ speed chopping technique on shallots. I think it’s the first real outing for my first aid kit in the last seven countries.

One lunchtime I came home to a flood - the landlord’s sister-in-law (who lives with them and helps around the house) started the well pump and went out; once the tank filled it overflowed into my bathroom and kitchen. Later I heard a series of loud bangs from the toilet; a guest must have left the light on and the water seeped into the fitting, causing a bit of arc welding.

Its starting to get chilly some nights and I’m glad to have that hot shower (except the odd time when the power is off or the tank empty) and my single jumper. The days are very pleasant though, it’s a great climate at this end of the year. The manager of a German NGO threw a big party last weekend, a great show but in the dark I stubbed my toe on a rock and split it in two, now I don’t get about much while I wait for the halves to rejoin. I forced myself to close and dress it which was a bit gruesome.

At last! Internet .. I can send this without dragging my laptop into town and renting a connection. Cheers!


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