Monday, February 25, 2013

View from the Balcony

The construction next door wasn't the only thing we watched from the second floor. Early one morning while we were having coffee on the balcony, we found ourselves with front-row seats at a wedding procession bound for a large villa several blocks down the street. The groom's family and friends, bearing gifts for the bride's family, assembled in front of Jimmy and Nine's building.

It took a little while for everyone to arrive and take their places.

Men were dressed in suits or shirt and tie, and the women wore traditional Cambodian dress.

The official photographers recorded the occasion before everyone marched slowly down the street to the home of the bride's family.

I'm sure it was quite an occasion!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Construction, Cambodian Style

There was never a dull moment while we were in Cambodia. Even if we were just hanging out at the apartment, reading, visiting or whatever, there was always something going on.

Last year we were fascinated by construction projects in the neighborhood, but this year we got a very up close and personal look. Immediately west of Jimmy Joe and Nine's apartment building a house had been demolished, and work was beginning on what will be a seven-story office building. That doesn't bode well for the view from their dining room and JJ's study, but it certainly entertained us.  Here's what the site looks like from street level.

And from the dining room window.

Notice that most repair and adjustment work is done by hand with simple tools and little, if any, protective gear.

Some of the laborers take a break.  Instead of steel-toe boots, many of them wear flip-flops. Floppy sun hats rather than hard hats are the norm. 

The workers set up this small, improvised shrine to ask the spirits to bless the project, or perhaps to ensure their safety. All such offerings contain two of each item.

And here is what the kitchen for the job site cafeteria looks like.

For this initial phase of the project, the workers either arrive each morning on motos, or sleep on site under the blue tarp in the left of the picture. After work, they shower in a corner of the lot using a garden hose. 

Judging from other projects, later on workers will bring their families.  This woman and her child live with other worker families in a street-side shanty a couple of blocks away.

As work on the office building progresses, bamboo scaffolding will be used for access to the exterior of the building. The large villa below, where had just begun when we visited last year, shows some of this scaffolding in place.

In another year, perhaps it will be completed and the small shrine in the foreground will have a permanent home.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Very Special Celebration

Once back in Phnom Penh, we had a rare treat. We were invited to attend a traditional Cambodian engagement ceremony for the daughter of one of Nine's relatives. 
A bit of background....the Cambodian culture contains many elements. Not only are there the Khmer, or "native" Cambodians, but others who trace their ethnic heritage to the Chinese, Vietnamese or other groups. As a result, customs may contain traditions from a number of ethnic sources. In Phnom Penh, young couples from traditional families do not "date" in the sense they do in our culture. They do not get to know each other in the back of a '57 Chevy as some of us did. Instead, they meet and become acquainted through their friends, families, work or school.

The Cliffs Notes version of Cambodian courtship (at least in the family we have met) goes something like this. When a young man is interested in a girl, he must, through his parents or family elders, receive permission to court her. If the girl is not interested, permission is not given. Prior to becoming engaged, the young couple are never alone. In fact, it isn't even proper for them to hold hands prior to their engagement. All their meetings take place in the company of groups of friends. 

Once Srey Roat, the bride-to-be (in the center of the photo above with father, Chhay and mother, Neang Nith, and her two sisters), and Samouth, the prospective groom, (shown above seated next to his uncle) decided they wanted to marry, the next step was for his parents to ask hers for their approval. That done, the astrologers and fortune-tellers were consulted to determine auspicious dates for the formal engagement ceremony and wedding, and planning began. Fortunately, Sunday, January 13, the date chosen for the engagement ceremony allowed us to attend this very special event.  On the day of the ceremony, I shot this image of Jimmy and Nine as we prepared to leave.

We arrived at the home of Srey Roat's parents to find preparations in full swing. The living room was cleared to make room for the ceremony, and two small tables held offerings for the spirits of the elders of the families.


Upstairs, Srey Roat's hairdresser was putting the finishing touches on her hair and makeup.

In the family's outdoor kitchen, the maids and cooks were preparing food for the 60 or so people expected to attend.

As Samouth and his family approached, Nine and the other elders from Chhay and Neang Nith's families lined up to greet their guests.

In the Cambodian tradition, Samouth's family arrived bearing many baskets of flowers, fruit and other goodies. These are given as an offering for her hand in marriage.

Then a religious practitioner known as an "acha," who would officiate at the engagement ceremony, made certain that the baskets were properly placed.   

After the family elders, and parents of the prospective bride and groom were seated, the ceremony began.

John and I didn't understand anything that was said, but we did understand that this was much more than an "engagement party." In the Cambodian culture, the engagement ceremony symbolizes not just the couple's intent to marry. It is a commitment between and among the families to the union of their families and to the support of the young couple in their upcoming marriage.

Several minutes into the ceremony, Samouth and Srey Roat were brought into the room and seated beside their parents.

The ceremony, presided over by the acha, included burning of incense, dedication of offerings to the spirits of departed ancestors, symbolic chewng of betal nuts.

An important part of the ceremony involved each parent tying a string around the wrists of the prospective bride and groom. I was told that the string was white if the person tying it was of Khmer ancestry and red if he or she is of Chinese heritage. 

The mothers then sprinkled water on the heads of the young couple, who in turn asked blessings from their parents.
After the conclusion of the ceremony itself, more tables were set up and a fantastic Cambodian lunch was served to celebrate the engagement. 
We were very honored to be a part of this happy occasion, and look forward to seeing photos of the wedding, which is scheduled for this fall.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

I See Tuk-tuks!

Our trip home was uneventful.  The most excitement (other than watching "The Gods Must Be Crazy" on the bus's TV) was when we entered Cambodia.  The bus driver, who was responsible for getting all of us safely across the border, directed John and me to the wrong line.  We made our way slowly to the border crossing checkpoint, only to have a stern-faced official wave us away, pointing back to the door we had come in.  Thank goodness Nine was close by to translate.  We learned that we should have first obtained another visa allowing us to re-enter Cambodia, and that the official was irritated that our bus driver hadn't given us proper instructions.  We trudged back to the visa window, accompanied by the apologetic bus driver who helped to fill out our paperwork.  After a short delay our entry fees ($25 US each) changed hands, our visas were issued and we were on our way.  

I do want to share a few photos from the trip with you, and don't forget you can click on them to enlarge.   (Most were taken through the not-too-clean bus window, so I apologize for the quality.)

Breakfast at the Sidewalk Cafe, Saigon

Protection is a Good Thing
Mamma Dog at the Bus Stop Cafe

Anyone for a Tasty Spider?
Rural Electrification -- Cambodia Style

Crossing the Mekong on the Ferry

Ferry Dock Child

Near the end of the six-hour bus trip, we were glad to see tuk-tuks (there are none in Vietnam) and knew we were almost home.