Thursday, October 11, 2007

Like Halloween, But Everytime You Go Shopping

Yes. That is a pigs head.

I’d like to spend my time in this post taking you (dear, loyal reader) through the mysterious, crazy, joyful, frustrating, smelly and stiflingly hot experience that is shopping at a Cambodian market. A few words about markets generally are likely in order.

First, there ARE in fact grocery stores in Cambodia. If you’d like, you can head into an air-conditioned, brightly lit store, where dozens of courteous (if not incredibly bored) employees will literally jump to your aid should you help finding anything, anything at all. Even if it’s right in front of you and you’re reaching out to grab it at that very moment. Quite helpful. In these stores, you can buy your pre-cut, cellophane wrapped meat, devoid of any notion that this bright pink thing under lights ever came from an animal that is likely walking by outside right then. You can buy beer and you can buy chips and, for some reason, dried squid sold like beef jerky.

But you cannot buy an entire cows liver.

...the cow wasn't using it anyway...

...or an entire plucked chicken...

Did you know that chickens start off with heads? I always thought that came breaded and fried?!? Who knew?!

...or a bizzarelly fileted fish...

....this was so strange as to defy words...except these words...and those just there.

...or a big ol' pigs leg (not pigs foot...pigs leg) and some tripe!

See! How disappointing to miss that.

Now, to say that you can shop at a grocery store is not to say that many people do.

...but if you go to a grocery store you'll make meat lady mad!

The majority of Cambodians go to one of any number of markets for pretty much anything you can imagine.

like custom made 5 minutes...

Need a scarf? Need 17,000 scarves? They’ve got you.

"yeah I'll have the red the OTHER red one. No not that one either..."

In addition to krama’s, most sellers have hundreds of incredible silk scarves that they will force on you. Heaven help you if you show interest in even one, because you will be walking out with about 27. There are also table runners, table cloths, sheets, and towels.

Need an enormous sword and a tiny wooden bowl in the shape of a mangosteen? That’s three booths over. But if you buy it TWO booths over, you can get it for just slightly less.

Ladies and gentlement...chotchkes!


Any chance that you want to buy some DVD’s? Of movies that came out in theaters yesterday? Of movies that are still in post-production? Of a book that a studio just bought the rights for? There are ten different vendors all vying to sell you some. An entire season of Lost? 7 dollars.

Markets are crowded, could induce claustrophobia in mine workers and are so loud that rock stars walk out complaining about the noise. The aisles are as wide as one narrow-shouldered Cambodian, which I can assure you is not nearly wide enough for one narrow-shouldered American, much less two or three of such behemoths. The merchandise is stacked in front and the vendors sit behind it, occasionally shouting out an inducement to check out their wares.

“You need t-shirt? I give you good deal.”

“Fruit? I give you 1 kilo of rambuton for 4000 riel.”

Eating this stuff would have been a lot easier if ol' Babe hadn't been staring at me (see first picture of post)

“I give you good price for scarves, sell you many many scarves.”

Ahhh I'm sideways! Yet otherwise an uninteresting picture! Ah!


There is rarely a moment where your attention isn’t being diverted. Of particular note are the silk and cotton accoutrements. One of the primary items for sale is the krama, a traditional Cambodian scarf that is worn by both men and women, often while bathing, around the head soaked with water if out in the fields, around the neck to wipe sweat, pretty much anything you can think of, you can do with a krama.

Like eat brownies at my apartment back in DC (I have violated the blogger laws of temporal picture relativity! ARGHHH!!)

The best thing that I can compare a Cambodian market to is a haunted house. You’re sweating, nervous, and you pretty much have to be prepared to come face to face with anything, including a disembodied head, a sweaty zombie tourist, or a deeply, deeply drunk group of Singaporeans...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

DC-Cam: So just what does an NGO's office look like? Here's a hint: we probably have more hammocks than you do at your job

So what the hell do I do every day and where do I do it? Some of you have asked this question, so apologies to those who have not.

To start with, and to give a little bit of background for those who don't already know, the Documentation Center began through a grant and a lot of work from Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Project. The project was largely the brainchild of a man named Ben Kiernan who wrote probably the most popular book about Pol Pot called "The Pol Pot Regime." He set up the center with Youk Chhang (the gentleman from the previous post) as the director and it has been operational ever since. Initially, DC-Cam worked on uncovering and recovering documents from the Khmer Rouge period. DC-Cam also exhumed and recorded hundreds of mass graves, documenting the number of people in each pit, the way that they died and who may have done the killing.

Same pic of Youk, but now with shiny new context!

DC-Cam now has produced dozens of books, monographs, scholarly papers, and translations relating to the Khmer Rouge. Walking into the office full of young Cambodians, you would little expect that most of them have written a scholarly book, and that many hold Masters degrees from foreign universities. Youk's philosophy is to rebuild Cambodian society through education, and the best way to do that is to have his employees go away and then bring back skills and experiences that they can utilize to develop Cambodian society.

DC-Cam is also the primary source of evidence that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) will rely on for the upcoming trials (which, by the way WILL be happening...really).

So lets take a little tour of the office...

We don't have engraved name plates, but we do have thick steel bars!

First off, we all sort of work wherever there is space available. I have essentially stormed and conquered the desk of a woman named Farina, since she has left to attend a conference in NY for the next month. Woohoo my own space!

This is "The big table" (which I just christened as such).

If it looks like a chaotic mess piled high with papers, books, documents and reports, thats because it is. There are, at any given time, between 2 and 5 people doing research around this table which can be a little crazy.

Of course, no office would be complete without internet. So in this brave new world of connectivity, we have a whopping 5 internet connections for about 20 people. This necessitates either arriving at the office very early, or being very sneaky with the ethernet cord while someone is at lunch. We all just recieved an e-mail from the accountants that while normal monthly internet costs are about 350/month, we are now operating at about 1,045/month. Apparently we consume internet like voracious wolverines.

Since DC-Cam has most of the documents that the ECCC needs to operate, the co-prosecutors and co-investigating judges have "offices" at our building.

Funny story about these offices: they are two doors right next to each other that lead into the same room. I'm still confused about this.

Of course, we work hard, and rarely get a chance to take a breather.

I swear I did not take this picture after getting out of the hammock after a nap...really

Youk likes to plant stuff...seriously.

My struggles with picture orientation continue...

This bird is my nemesis.
Since Day 1, he has taken huge snaps at my fingers every time I walk by. I have reconciled our conflict by realizing that he lives in a tiny little cage that I walk by every day on my way to do whatever the hell I feel like doing. No wonder he hates me.
The publications office (so italicized since I'm not sure exactly what we call it) is where much of the actual putting together of the magazine occurs. Since we produce a lot of copies of the magazine in both English and Khmer, this room always tends to look a little crazy....except in this picture actually

So that's where I work. It is a constantly buzzing locus of activity for scholars, student groups, government officials, officials from the ECCC, members of other NGO's and geckos...lots and lots of geckos. On any given day, there may be a group of Teachers from the US passing through who want to know about our work with Cambodian schools to provide them with Boly's textbook (the first to address the Khmer Rouge period that is approved for any sort of use in Cambodian schools), a PhD candidate working on a thesis about the history of the Cambodian People's Party (the current oligarchic government party), or a co-prosecutor from the ECCC trying to find a particular document that can be used at the upcoming Tribunal.

My own work has me either glued to my desk or out roaming around the provinces, interviewing village and commune chiefs and conducting legal trainings on the Court. Of course, pictures and silly tales of such passings will be the subject of the next few posts. Never fear dear reader, my exploits will be available for your viewing pleasure (because I know you're all lazy and don't read!)

In short, it is an interesting place to be working.

Next: The world's weirdest NGO community (qualifier: I assume), meetings with court officials, and the many, many hours that it takes to get anywhere.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Khmer Rouge Soldiers, Too Much Fruit, and Confused Looking Children

This man was a Khmer Rouge soldier

This man marched into Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975 and told people to evacuate to the countryside, precipitating one of the worst periods of systematic human rights abuses in recent history.

This man is a Buddhist monk.

Difficult to reconcile? We sure as hell thought so. How did we come to spend time with this singularly unique monk?

We (myself and BJ, my roommate) had decided to forego the warm sandy shores of Sihanoukville for the long weekend (being the Queen’s birthday and all of course). Instead, we traveled 5 hours North-East into a province called Kratie (pronounced Krah-cheh) with a co-worker of ours named Khamboly (Boly) Dy and another co-worker named Paree. This is the province that Boly grew up in, and he decided to go visit for the first time in over 2 years, in no small part due to the fact that he was about to move to the States to get a Masters degree.

Kratie has an interesting relationship to the Khmer Rouge, as it was both the first province overtaken by the KR forces, and then the first to fall. Thus, there are many former KR soldiers living in the area, and many of those who helped to overthrow them.

The drive out took us along National Road 4 (NR4) one of (X) number of national highways that sort of criss-cross the country. Considering that this is Cambodia, the road was in remarkable shape. That is, it was paved, wide enough for close to two cars to drive past each other, and had no land mines. Using your horn and steering are essentially the only two skills that you need to have in order to drive in Cambodia. Strategic use of the horn is a must, and there are a number of different and subtle techniques and sounds that you must be proficient in. For instance, if you are driving along a completely open road with no other cars on it, you will toot your horn every 15 seconds or so, to let anything (farmer, child, cow, pig, dog) know that you are coming. If there are other cars on the road, sometimes you will give several short blasts as they approach, apparently to let them know both visually and aurally that you are in fact, oncoming. Dealing with the thousands of motos is a challenge well suited to horn usage, as any time a moto is encountered (which is pretty much at all times) you are (it seems) required to honk at them until you have passed them by, just to make sure they know not to go veering into your lane.

Once you’re out on the open (ahem) road, the scenery unfolds to either side of you like an enormous shag carpet unrolling: sunken rice paddies with murky water and brilliant green shoots of new rice predominate the landscape, only occasionally broken up by a slender, palmy fronded tree standing alone among the fields. Slate gray, rib rippled cows meander about, nibbling here and fertilizing there. Along the road are dozens of wood and thatch shacks, effectively just covered platforms built a few feet off of the ground, intended to provide a little shelter for the workers and sometimes sell any of the many varieties of fruit available throughout Cambodia. Pulling the car over is like a siren song for long-sleeve clad women and children, heads covered in red and white checked scarves, to approach you with baskets full of bread, sticky-rice stuffed into bamboo, and fried spiders the size of your face. If you’re feeling bold (but not spider-eating bold) you can try some durian, the pungent fruit that is banned from public transport in most SEAsian countries due to its ummm…intoxicating scent (quite delicious though)

Another interesting feature of the landscape is the dichotomy between the shacks and huts that people call home, and the stupas and pagodas that reside right next to those shacks. The homes, for the most part, are neat wood structures, often 20-30 feet off the ground. They are supported at the base by concrete pylons and usually contain a small concrete patio on which may rest anything from a pack of dogs to enormous clay pots full of rainwater for cooking and cleaning.

The holy buildings, by contrast, are vast white, blue and gold structures, 4 stories high or more, with ornately accented edges and beautifully tiled roofs. The roof tiles are especially of note, as they are usually a pattern of blue, gold, green and red, and tend to be arranged in expanding concentric rectangles. All around the pagodas are individual stupas, large, painted concrete tombs into which the cremated ashes of loved ones are placed. Seeing these ornamental touches next to such humble homes gave me a moment of pause, trying to reconcile the vastly different priorities assigned in my own culture to the appearance of the home vs. that of where we bury our loved ones

A final architectural feature of note were the entrances to many of the rice paddies. I wasn’t sure exactly the divisions, but every few kilometers, there would be a narrow, dirt path inbetween the paddies that seemed to demarcate some sort of property line. Notable about them were the structures that guarded the mouth of those roads. Enormous arches, stretched over the road, and where each reached the ground, a long low wall would extend out to the highway. These walls were shaped as dragons, with intricately carved scales, typically ending in a fierce lion or dragons head, seemingly daring anyone to try and cross their path and venture down the dirt road. Clearly we stayed away.

Part of the purpose of our travels was to deliver Boly's textbook to various high schools all around Cambodia. Since 2003, the government of Cambodia has excised from all official school books any mention of the Khmer Rouge period. Boly's book is the first such book that will deal with the Khmer Rouge period and has been written in a scholarly manner that is easily accessible to school-children. At present, the government has given the okay to hand out the books to the teachers to peruse, but has not yet approved the book for the kids. Apparently, the government wants the book cut from its already lean 70 pages to a more politically correct 10-15 pages. There are some other changes that they want as well, and DC-Cam is currently in negotiations to finally get this book out to the schools as broadly as possible. Either way, we stopped a number of times to deliver the books, and it was a moment of pride for Boly to hand over his work to be taught to future generations of Cambodian leaders.

We arrived in Kratie and Boly drove us to his home to surprise his family. Being the masters of planning that we are, he had decided not to tell them that he was coming. Completely unexpectedly, noone was home. No matter, Boly quickly directed us to his uncle’s house, right across the street. There we sat and….sat some more. It seems that on the weekends, at least in Kratie, a popular activity is to gather at a relative’s house, sit on the floor, and not talk. It sounds boring, but it was really very pleasant. Boly has a number of cousins and other uncles who came by to say hello as well, and much of our time was passed trying to convince Lyda (seen below) that we were not the terrifying white apparitions that we appeared to be.

One of the reasons that Kratie is mentioned at all in the guidebooks (albeit for about a page) is because of the rare, Irawaddy dolphins. This is typically where in the post I put up a picture of me doing something stupid with the thing that I am describing. However, in a blow to anti-discrimination activists everywhere the guy sitting at the entrance to the parking lot (I won’t dignify his position otherwise) told us that we each (white guys) had to pay 5 dollars just to get to the edge of the river to try and seek out these mystical, bizarre dolphins, and then a boat ride out to really see them would be another 7 dollars apiece. It was free for the Cambodians. Loudly protesting in both Khmer and English, we roared off into the sunset (well it was noon but whatever).

We decided to go to the 100 columns pagoda, so called because, as you can probably imagine, it has somewhere around 100 columns
What is interesting about these columns is that they are mostly made of concrete, where formerly they had been made of wood. We heard a number of conflicting stories relating to the fate of the columns, but largely, the point was that during the Khmer Rouge regime the temple was overtaken and the columns were stolen to be part of a bridge that was later blown up. Since the columns had been there for over 100 years, this was kind of a bummer

At a nearby pagoda, we met the monk. With Boly acting as interpreter, he told us his story, it is incredibly complicated and I won’t try to retell it all here as it requires a somewhat intimate knowledge of Cambodian history in the last 25 years, and even though I’ve spent the last month and a half studying nothing but, I still have only a very little idea how everything actually worked. Suffice it to say that this man is a survivor, a leader and a holy man. His story is remarkable not necessarily for the events but for the fact that it is not unlike the stories of many others in this country. Each conversation that I have with people who were alive during the Khmer Rouge regime fascinates and terrifies me, yet I can’t stop asking questions and trying to figure out just what went on here. It is a question one could spend a lifetime answering.

The next morning we loaded up for Phnom Penh, and arrived back just in time to have to justify to everyone why we hadn’t gone to see these ridiculous looking dolphins.

(I am having serious formatting and picture orientation issues these days with blogger. Please bear with me while I curse and scream and pray to Buddha to fix these ridiculous technical issues)

Next: Seriously, some pictures of my office.