Easter Sihanoukville Writing Workshop and Visit to Ream

Amazingly, given the fact that we weren’t able to publicise Jan Cornall’s Writing Workshop as well as we would have liked, 12 people turned up for her mini writing workshop and luncheon at Q&A Bookshop in Sihanoukville. Six local Khmers turned up, including a philosophy professor and a poetry prize winning student. A mixed bag of expats and tourists made up the barang contingent. It was a great group and a great workshop.

One of Jan’s reasons for visiting Sihanoukville was to go to the location sets of the 2008 film version of Marguerite Duras’ fascinating biography, The Sea Wall. Fortunately, Erika, of the Starfish Project, knew where it was, since she played as an extra in the film. The French produced film starred Isabelle Huppert and was directed by Cambodian Rithy Panh. I haven’t seen it, but the story sounds amazing. It’s about Duras’ mother’s attempts to grow rice in, I believe, the late 1920s. The problem was that her fields were flooded by sea water every year, ruining her crops. She then borrowed money from Indian lone sharks and hired Chinese labourers to build a sea wall. After a couple of failed attempts, she finally got a crop, only to have it stolen by her workers.

Anyway, check it out yourself or better yet, read the book. The house and restaurant that featured prominently in the film are located in Ream, only about an hour’s drive outside of Sihanoukville. We rented our neighbour’s car after the workshop and took her out there. It was a magical world: so close to Sihanoukville, but so isolated. Sopheak and I have been fantasising about getting the caretaker’s job at the house ever since.

As if that wasn’t enough for one day, afterwards, we went just up the road to Tuk Sap for our evening meal. It was perfect. We were the only customers and as the sun began to set, the gentle breeze, which had been keeping us cool, dropped and the water became as smooth as glass. It was the perfect ending to a great day.

I got so many great pictures yesterday, I think I’ll make a photo album of them.

We also talked with Jan about “my” book and how best to write it. She had the brilliant idea to let Sopheak tell the story in her own words and have me just write it down. I felt kind of dumb for not thinking of that myself, but like all good ideas, they are only obvious after they’re expressed. Having Sopheak be the author solves a lot of problems that have prevented me from getting started, one of them being the lack of authenticity of a third person account.

Now it’s time to get to work.

Our Cambodian New Year

Its Khmer New Year this week. I look forward to it with a mixed feelings. On the one hand, Sihanoukville becomes insanely busy for the entire week and I hate it when I have to go into town. On the other hand, we always go to some wats and have a great family day out. Yesterday we went to two wats. Both of them are out near Virh Rienh, where my Cambodian family lived when I met them.

Neither of the wats we went to this year are big ones. They are both tucked away in semi-rural areas and cater primarily to the poorer locals. These are my favourite wats because what they lack in sophistication, they more than make up for in atmosphere. The photo at left is of the first one we went to.

The photo on the right is of an interesting little mini-temple just behind it. The guy with the beard holding the staff is some sort of saint who lives in the jungle. He has the power to heal and is said to even be able to raise the dead. This guy is fascinating to me because of a story Sopheak told me about when she was living alone in the jungle. She slashed the back of her ankle on a piece of shrapnel. A “nyetah” (hard to define – sort of like a shaman) came and taught her how to treat it. It was a fairly complicated procedure involving mud, spider’s webs and bird eggs. When I mentioned how lucky she was to have met such a wise man, she looked at me like I was crazy: “Him only come. Then go away.” He was an “hallucination” as we rational Westerners like to say. When I visualize her “hallucination,” he looks a lot like this guy.

The next wat we went to was one we had been to before. I love it because it is on top of a hill and has great views. The big Buddha faces the main road and the rice fields. At his back, where the wat itself is located is just beautiful rolling hills. There is a waterfall and plunge pool somewhere nearby, but doesn’t have water until the rainy season set in.

After going to the wat, we went to the family’s former home in Khmeng Watt, a poor village near Virh Rienh. It was nice to see that the roads had been improved in the village and that many of the houses are quite a bit better than they used to be. I often wonder if taking the family in here in crazy Sihanoukville was a good idea. Yesterday I really thought it was not. Many of the family members have changed since they’ve had a taste of the city and not for the better. I’ll cover that in my upcoming book, tentatively titled, This Could be Heaven, or . . .. For now, I’ll just say that while the day went well, the evening went badly after Papa went out and drank whiskey with some locals.

I don’t want to spoil the New Year cheer with the details. Cambodia can be heaven and it can be hell. It seems to fluctuate wildly between both extremes.

Dinner at Home in Sihanoukville

A funny thing happened just before dinner this evening. I was playing with our 8 month old son, Kelly while Sopheak was cooking. She was cooking on our “BBQ” stove, the clay pot we have outside and the one both she and her mother prefer to our gas stove. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, she grabbed a flashlight and started walking down the metre wide strip of land between our house and our neighbour’s. She walked slowly, as if looking for something. Thinking one of the children had lost something, I asked her if she wanted me to help. She told me everything was okay and she would be back in a minute.

A minute or so later she returned with a handful of what looked like weeds and sprinkled them into the stew she was preparing. She just mixed them into the stew and then served it to me. I can’t tell you how delicious they were. They had a mild flavour, but it was unlike anything I had ever tasted – a little bit like spinach and pine nuts, but not quite like that, either.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Often when we’re out on our evening walks in Sihanoukville, she’ll suddenly veer off the path and go into what to all appearances is a vacant lot filled with useless weeds. She’ll carefully select some stalks or leaves from amongst the varieties of “weeds” and come home and cook them. On other occasions, she and Mama will go out together and collect mushrooms or other delicacies.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a horrible case of food poisoning from some cookies I bought in a supermarket I have since learned often buys out of date packaged foods. The stomach cramps were excruciating and you don’t even want to know about the diarrhoea.  Instead of staying with me, Sopheak raced out of the house. I thought she was going to the doctor, but instead she went to a tree at the end of the road and stripped it of some bark. She then carefully prepared a tea from the bark, boiling down 3 cups of water until exactly one cup remained. After allowing it to cool, she ordered me to drink it down fast, warning me first that it would not taste good.

The tea was bitter, but not that bad. Less than 5 minutes after drinking it, my cramps and diarrhoea vanished as if by magic. I’ve never had a prescription medicine work that fast or effectively.

When we go to the market, Sopheak only buys from certain vendors and even then carefully chooses the fruits and vegetables. She doesn’t always select the ones I would select, but I’ve learned from experience to trust her judgement. While I might choose the biggest fruit or veggie, she often chooses the smallest. Her selections always taste better and fresher than mine. She tells me that she never buys fruit or vegetables that come from Thailand because Thai produce has “gimmi” in it. Gimmi (that’s how it’s pronounced – I have no idea how its spelled) is her catch-all word for insecticides, hormones and other chemical additives.

Sopheak was raised in poor farming areas and for many years she lived alone in the jungle. Later, when she was reunited with her family, they lived on the outskirts of the jungle and survived by foraging. She knows firsthand the difference between organic food and the bizarre chemically treated and processed foods we in the West have to endure.  Those of us who are conceited enough to think we have an “advanced” society should taste some of Sopheak’s cooking. They might think again.