Listen to Pilot Light

Monday, April 23, 2012

Another wedding and its music

The folks at the basket maker's house next to us started setting up the tents for a wedding on Saturday. I call it the basket maker's house, because when they aren't having weddings, they make huge baskets out of reeds--all day long. A very industrious group. So they deserved a party.

You can' see the house in this photo. It sits back from the way and the tent runs all the way from the road to the house. The second tent, to the right, is in an empty lot. I suppose it is for friends of friends of the family.

The daytime music, which is largely traditional music, which I was told was written specifically for weddings, is interesting. Khmer music uses five tones, but they aren't the same as the Western pentatonic scale (the "rock" scale). It is all whole tone steps, no sharps or flats. And the arrangements tend to be rhythmic. The music has no harmonies, and independent melodies are interwoven. At its best, it is really nice, kind of Asian Dixieland. At its worst (according to my ears) it is like a bad jam session.

The nighttime music was certain to be that terrible mixtape of Santana (long instrumentals by a Santana clone who is good but little imagination) and pop and awful Karaoke. So went to the city for the evening. Stayed at a nice wooden guest house on the river front. We had a khmer massage, which is a very soothing way to spend an hour, and ate frogs legs while watching family hour on the riverfront. We call it family hour because the vast majority of the traffic is motorbikes with Mom and Dad and a couple of kids on board. They stop at street vendors and buy boiled corn on the cob, or beer, or some of the other interesting foods available. But more on food another time.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The right temperature

It's the hot season in Cambodia. May will be hot too. But each day is different. Some mornings it gets hot early, while on others it stays pleasant until ten or so. In the evening it might cool quickly or stay hot until nearly midnight. So far, however, it always cools off at night.
Our house

Yesterday evening, about six, I tool a stroll to the front gate of the compound that the house we rent is part of. Actually, I was taking out the garbage, but everyone knows that writers don't take out garbage, so I was taking a stroll, communing with the universe. Those are things writers are expected to do, and I intend to represent my group proudly.

It had been a hot and still day, but suddenly I noticed that the temperature was absolutely perfect. I didn't recall a moment when it began getting cooler,but clearly, while my attention was elsewhere, it had dropped to a perfect temperature. Now don't expect any numbers from me in either Celsius, which is what we use her, of Fahrenheit, as  if I had a thermometer it would most likely be in whatever oblivion I assigned my watch to many moons ago. Time and precise measurement don't fit this kind of living well. The very idea of quantifying pleasant is, well, unpleasant.

Pretty much every day, since it likes regularity, the Kampot sun sets behind Bokor Mountain, which is behind our house. If you guessed it was to the West, you've been paying attention. When I returned to the house from my stroll, and the garbage mysteriously taken care of, I was still enjoying the evening, so I hung out on the porch. I noticed our neighbor Andreas standing in the yard looking at something. He pointed behind my house.

"The sky," he said.

I looked and saw a yellow orange sky, fading out as the sun set. I should mention that he is from Sweden and the idea of sunset always being at six is a bit of an adjustment for him, even though he lived for a time in Thailand before coming here.

This morning was cool. We eat a breakfast of fruit on the porch and look out at the river. Some mornings are too hot to sit long, but clouds rolled in from Viet Nam with no Visa whatsoever and blocked the direct sun. The weather pattern is already shifting. The clouds were coming from the Northeast and now they are from the Southeast. Perhaps the rains will come soon and May won't be so hot.

We find that it is easy to deal with the heat when you become aware of those magic moments when the temperature is perfect. It's easier to deal with anything that isn't going well when you see the magical light of sunset and sunrise surprising you with its choice of colors and patterns.

Perhaps I am easily amused these days, but it feels like a gentle time.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Twelfth Year

Moving into the twelfth year of something is important in Cambodia. A nearby house starts its twelfth year of existence soon, and the owner brought in monks and held a small ceremony to ensure it will be propitious. I find it interesting that the idea is to celebrate the year at its beginning, but it makes a lot more sense than the normal cry of relief that we give in the West to announce that we have survived another year.

Closer to home for us, a local couple invited us to the party for their wedding anniversary. Having been married for eleven years, they are moving into that auspicious twelfth year. Parties are important here, so we got fancy invitations telling us that Mr Sor Yuthka and Mrs Yuos Sophy, known to us as Ka and Sophy, were having a party and we were invited.
 An anniversary party here looks a lot like a wedding party. There is a huge tent or two, lots and lots of speakers for the LOUD sound system (that plays music really LOUD! And I mean REALLY LOUD!). As an honored guest you get to sit in front of the speakers. Fortunately, we were on foreigners and able to suggest that we sit slightly off the main target range and further back (stupid foreigners never know a good thing).

When enough guests arrive to fill a table, the food starts to arrive and people chat as well as the music permits, and toast each other. So you face the prospect of a well dressed housewife looking you in the eye, clinking glasses with you and saying "joul moaay", which means you have to drink your iced Cambodia beer down in one go or face incredible humiliation in the eyes of everyone around.

Early guests getting ready for the feast
We left not long after the food was done, but the party proper was just ramping up. The emergence of a generation of karaoke artists caused the volume of the music to increase, with a commensurate increase in distortion. We were going to hear it anyway, at least until midnight, but decided to put some distance between ourselves and ground zero.

We find it interesting that Cambodians almost universally love loud noise. The old and young alike have no use for a volume control set even a micron below maximum. It seems hard to relate this quality with their many virtues.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Happy New Year from SE Asia

Here in Southeast Asia, New Year is approaching. In a few days it will be 2556 BE (Buddhist Era) in Cambodia. Laos celebrates on the same days (April 13 through 15) as it is the end of the harvest season. The Thai New Year is a little off; maybe they like going to two parties. At any rate, throughout SE Asia, the monsoon should be coming soon, and with it the rains. It is hard to travel in the rainy season.

It's a big holiday for the Khmer people, and they are not content to settle for the three official days, as this is an opportunity to return to the provinces and see family and just have fun. The Khmer people have a great aptitude and appetite for partying.

Theoretically, each of the three days has a specific function that is tied closely to activities at the pagodas. The first is Maha SongKiran, when offerings are made; the second is Virak Wanabat, which is supposed to be about charitable work and helping the poor; the third day is Tngay Leang Saka, and if you do it right, you cleanse the statues of Buddha with perfumed water.

It is a little crazy all over the country this time of year. Khmers sort of warm up with celebrating the Chinese New Year in Feb, and brought in the year of the dragon with some great revelry. So we expect stores will be closed. We've been stocking up and getting ready to hunker down. Traffic gets wild, and there is more than the normal amount of drunkenness, as you might expect. After all, it will soon be 2556, so check your calendars.