Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Eating the sacred Lotus

The lotus plant is prolific in Cambodia. We see it everywhere; growing in ponds, in large pots, on the edge of the river, in the architecture, in the typography, names of Hotels and Guesthouses, tour agencies and restaurants and just about anywhere there is a temple or a crowd of people.

An aquatic plant with a showy blossom which comes in pinks, pale blue and white and is just as stunning as a bud as it when when it opens flat. According to sacred scripture it can have more than a hundred petals.

Spiritually the lotus is an important plant to Buddhists, Hindus (it is the national flower of India) and the ancient Egyptians. According to one creation myth it was a giant lotus which first rose out of the watery chaos, an infinate ocean of water called Nun, at the beginning of time. The lotus blossom opened and out stepped the sun god, Atum, as a child (some versions say it was in fact Ra) to create the first day. He returns to the lotus each evening and as the lotus blossom closes for the night he disappears.

Creating a similar image in both Buddhism and Hinduism the lotus regularly appears as a symbol of purity, peace, enlightenment, beauty, rebirth, transcendence and fertility and is considered to be of divine origin. Buddha was said to sleep on a lotus six months of the year, and Shambala- Buddhist heaven- is sometimes protrayed as a field of sacred lotus blossoms.

The idea of the symbolic connection to enlightenment is, I think, a beautiful metaphor. The lotus begins its life humbly in the mud and grows through the sometimes turbulent, often dirty and occasionally deep water (representing the trials of life) to the warmth and light of the sun where it can show its beautiful delicate face and bask in the warmth. Lotus flowers ‘wake up’ (open) at dawn and go to sleep (close) in the afternoon, at about the same time I have my natural low ebb. Some lotuses have even been known to open up at night and close during the day, ignoring the normal sunlight hours favoured by the majority of flowering plants, and effectively transcending normal time cycles.

For Hindus it is from an opening lotus bud that emerged from the navel of a slumbering Vishnu, the preserver of life, long ago, at the end of the aeons, when the whole universe had been engulfed in an ocean, and Creation was all but lost. From the flower came an egg which held a sleeping Brahma, the creator of all, who as he stirred nudged the creation of new worlds and gods and life could begin again.

The lotus is the only plant to fruit and flower simultaneously which means that you can buy bunches of lotus buds as offerings and the flat green seed pods with seeds to snack on while you wait in the temple queue. The riverfront in Phnom Penh is currently being developed. Soon you will be able to walk all the way from the new public toilets and visitors centre opposite the Royal Palace to Street 106 where the night market is which is great because it is a favourite meeting place for locals and tourists alike. At about 5 o'clock when the day begins to lose it's intensity the boardwalk and nearby park fill with people exercising, socialising, eating, peddling and just resting. There are two shrines, one always busier than the other, at one end and a variety of lotus sellers from which to buy your bunches of buds and insence sticks. There are also lotus sellers dealing in the edible bits hidden in the flat round green pods with the kind of 'modern' shape coveted by a contemporary florist.

A bunch of three pods laced together with dried grass cost J 3000 riel (about 75 cents).

Pull the pod apart to reveal the pale green seed.

Peel the soft thick skin off each seed and eat. They taste a lot like sun warmed fresh peas straight off the vine.

It didn't take long before we were surrounded by some of the little kids who seemed more intent on playing yesterday than they did begging, their usual evening occupation. 'Just one, just one' they giggled. The little one opposite me kept coming back for 'one more, one more'. She even said thank you.

We shared a pod then gave the other two away to two other little boys who were sitting watching the boats on the water.

Apparently lotus seeds are good for chronic diarrhea not a bad thing to know in these parts!

There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter.

We snuck away to Singapore for the weekend and stayed here which is further away from Orchard Road than we usually stay but still just three stops on the MRT. Originally we had booked a four night stay for three of us with days of theatre, movies, eating and sticking up on underwear but a week out J was called to Jakarta for work and ended up leaving Sunday. He did manage to catch 'To Kill a Mockingbird' on stage at the National Library Theatre and the very last showing of Avatar in 3D at Shaw House with us before he left with strict instructions not to forget the candles from Ikea on his way back through.

We felt like we were the last people on earth to see Avatar, sitting in a half empty cinema at lunchtime, wearing a pair of thick rimmed Joe Ninety 3D glasses.  We have had the (2D) DVD for a few weeks now but hadn't opened it wanting our first watch to be the way it was intended and now it will probably stay in its box. After seeing it's 3D incarnation I am pretty sure the 2D version will seem rather flat- pun intended! The visual effects were impressive. Being in 3D meant I felt pulled into the story. It reminded me of when surround sound first came out and all of a sudden Maverick and Goose were flying around the room yelling first in one ear then the other. Definately groundbreaking.

I snuck my wee finepix in and managed to snap a couple of fairly clear photos too.

On Sunday we went to see Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Singapore's Toy Factory productions surrounded by a fairly well behaved school group in the libraries enviable little theatre.

The American classic is still required reading, so I've discovered, in International schools. M is reading it in English right now. He managed to finish on the plane trip over as he didn't want artistic director Goh Boon Teck's vision to influence his first read through. The clever modern set design was simple and dramatic; a completely blackened stage punctuated only by a row of 6 doorways, tall chrome legged stackable bar stools as props and scene appropriate lighting, requiring the actors to carry the well known and much loved work which, for the most part, they did. The experienced multiracial cast shouldered the responsibility of not only convincing the audience of their characters and their sincerity through accents that were varied but never southern but also of creating the scene with only the stools. The result was a fine piece of choreography to go with some sage and enduring lines and a throughly modern and enjoyable production.

Next on the agenda, after J had flown our crumpled coop, was Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland', also in 3D of course. I like Burton /Depp /Bonham Carter compilations and Alice was no exception.

The staging and the makeup were incredible. Wonderland exactly as I had imagined it the numerous times I have read Lewis Carroll's printed version. Burton's Alice, technically a mix of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Through the looking glass and what Aice found there', is bold and ravishing, whimsical and heart stoppingly surreal.

I loved the inclusion of recognisable lines straight from the pages of a childhood Alice and the inclusion of the Jabberwocky with Carroll's fabulous fantastical onomatopaeia mouthed so easily by the Mad Hatter;
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

As if he knows what it all means!

I also managed a coffee with the talented Leone whose blog I have been reading (and photographs I have been devouring) ironically since we moved to Cambodia although Leone and her husband moved to Singapore at about the same time we did. We flew home on Tuesday in skies so clear I swear I saw heaven.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write the public and have no self. ~Cyril Connolly

I have been rather quiet lately and not by choice.
It all started when we came home from Italy to an extraordinarily slow internet connection which, it turned out, was caused by the speedy erection of this building to the point where it blocked our signal. No sooner was I back online when I began having problems with Blogger. It wouldnt stop loading meaning my account never fully opened and I couldnt post. I fiddled around with the settings a bit and managed a couple of uploads using the basic mode and then was frozen out again. Thankfully I could still see all your blogs and was able to post comments so I didnt feel too much out of the loop!
I finally worked out how to find the forum and discovered it was a Blogger problem not my computer, connection or Cambodia but still couldnt get in successfully. Finally just as I was about to abandon Blogger altogether in favour of a Wordpress account I was back still feeling rather trepacious and gun-shy but back then our router spat the dummy. According to the Ezecom guy who came and spent more than an hour sorting things out for me the electricity fluctuations and outages play havok with the routers settings and after a while they just stop working necessitating a complete reset...which he happily did for no charge at all.

And so I'm back...I hope for a while....wait while I go find some wood to touch....

Friday, March 5, 2010

If I could tell you that I wouldnt have to dance it.

We had a weekend of culture this weekend and not the kind of culture we are usually exposed to.
Friday night saw us at another of the recitals that follow the classical music workshops organised by the German embassy. This night featured German pianist and teacher, Professor Rolf-Dieter Arens performing mostly solo pieces from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and a complicated piece by Liszt involving long pauses which were both confusing and amusing for the Khmer in the audience. The final piece involved the students that participated in the workshop; two violinists, a pair of flutists, a cellist and the Professor on the piano.

On sunday we went down to the park in front of Wat Botum to watch the final performance in a month long series of dance events sponsored by the CCF (Centre Culturel Francais) and Amrita. I had read in the paper the organisers were a bit worried about possible competition for both floor and air space as this park, as well as just about every other public park in the capital, usually play host to open air aerobics classes complete with huge boom boxes pumping out a heavy beat at as many decibels as the speakers will allow. Their concerns were unfounded, however, as new back lit temporary stages were more than enough to peak the interest of local exercisers.

The evening began with a slide show of photographs taken by Anders Jiras of the various events and dancers during the month on a large prominent screen.

People were free to wander the area or claim their seat on the mats in front of each stage as they desired. We watched the slides and kind of hovered between a couple of stages until we realised that the dancers were taking turns at each stage and if we just stayed put we would get to see a good slice of what was on offer.

The first performance at our stage was a classical piece which followed the traditional line of many classical dance themes; boy eyes girl who, although shes not really interested dances fetchingly in front of him. He eventually wins her over, after the obligatory misunderstandings are cleared up, and a pas de deux ensues. Khmer dance is very restrained, despite the subject matter, using hands and foot positions to show emotion and expression. These two also used some lifts and balance moves that were not the usual traditional technique and we wondered whether they had been inspired by visiting contemporary choreographers to slip them into their set.

Then we watched some hiphop come B Boy moves again with few recognisable contemporary dance lifts thrown in for good measure. Tiny Toones, where these dancers came from, is an education NGO run by a American Cambodian deportee Tuy Sobi,l or KK, who teaches street kids and at risk youth the fine art of Hip Hop and B Boy dancing (those of you who had to click the link because they didnt know what I was talking about...shame on you!!). The story goes that KK was approached by some street kids who had learned that he used to be a notable break dancer. They wanted him to teach them how to dance. At first KK wasnt so enthusiastic after all he had just been ejected from the only country he had ever known to a country he was supposed to be from but felt no connection to. KK, a Cambodian refugee born in a camp on the Thai boarder during the rough Khmer Rouge years, was one of the many refugees that had eventually managed to flee his troubled homeland and had settled in Long Beach California with his family but without ever becoming an American citizen after becoming involved with the gang scene and a decade in the American penal system he was summarily and unceremoniously deported. The kids were persistent and eventually wore him down. Today Tiny Toones has positively impacted the lives of over 500 at risk teens in the Phnom Penh area teaching them Khmer and English literacy, breakdancing (or B Boying), DJ skills and rap. It is an inspirational story, yes? The dancers are an inspirational bunch too with some barely reaching double digits in age. I'm sure they would give Nigel Lythgoe something to smile about!

The next set was a contemporary piece about two trash collectors which began with a very clever heart felt pas de deux between boy and trash bag.

There was no word on how long the dancer had been dancing but he had impressive control and expression already.

Then his partner came on and the set evolved to include some recognisably contemporary lifts and body shapes. I was enthralled. We are incredibly lucky in New Zealand to have had the opportunity to be exposed to quite a lot of dance in many of it's forms. Both M and I were students at an American Jazz studio for many years before moving to Samoa. Dance is our soul food.

New Zealand often plays host to some fantastic dance companies from all over the world and we are blessed to have a few classical and contemporary choreographers we can call our own as well as the exceptionally capable and awe inspiring Royal New Zealand Ballet Company which like the Sydney Dance Company is as good performing a Balanchine as they are a Douglas Wright or a Michael Parmenter. As a genre contemporary dance is not easy as Isadora Duncan once said when asked to describe the style, 'If I could tell you that I wouldn't have to dance it!'

Contemporary dance was developed in the early 20th century as a reaction against the rigid techniques of ballet. Pioneers such as Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham searched for ease of movement using the body's natural lines and energy, allowing for a greater range and fluidity of movement than conventional dance techniques and encouraging dancers and choreographers to push the boundaries of dance and physical movement. New Zealands Footnote Dance Company has been teaching and dancing contemporary dance for more than 22 years and has spawned many a stunningly capable and beautifully expressive dancer and choreographer. We now have schools in Auckland (here and here), Wellington (and here) and at Otago teaching dance in all its genres.

Characterised by its versatility, contemporary dance can be danced to almost any style of music, or melded with other dance forms which in New Zealand has meant we have been treated to some very unique dance borrowing and inspired by traditional indigenous movement from Maori and Pacific island styles. Companies like Black Grace,  Merenia Gray and Atamira as well as solo performers, choreographers and integrated dance companies such as Jolt and Touch Compass that push the boundaries and perceptions of physical abilities. I love the raw human expression in the genre and the fact it can be as easily accompanied by Vivaldi as it can by The Blackeyed Peas. Can you tell I've missed it?

The next dancer was a tutor who performed a very modern contemporary piece more about movement than telling a story.

And then more B Boying, innovative and demanding, Khmer style.

The final item we saw was a contemporary narrative about a hunter and various animals in the forest.

Despite what this looks like there was no killing!

The audience at our stage sat and stood enthralled through most of the performances and applauded enthusiastically, as did we. The variety ensured there was something for everyone and it's an event I am hoping I wont have to wait another year to see again.

On the way home I couldnt resist taking this picture of Independence Monument all lit up like a temple tower.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The shuttlecock

Every evening in the parks, the spaces in front of shops and houses and on Riverside, where these pics were taken, Cambodians come out to exercise and socialise. One of the more spectacular games they play is Sey- Sey dock, Sey tot, Sey paen and Sey mey loang depending on the variation of the shuttle-a simplier variation of the 'Shuttlecock sport' which is an official sport played at the South East Asian Games. In it's official form the Shuttlecock sport, a kind of amalgamation of volleyball, badminton and soccer/football, is popular all over Asia and in parts of Europe.

It's an athletic sport where the players try to keep a kind of weighted shuttlecock in the air without using their hands. The result looks a bit like capoeira with more elaborate kicks and leaps scoring more points although most of the games we see are not so much point scoring as a social event- can you spot the player on the phone?  The really good players can do aerial bicycle kicks and flips.

The game is ancient. Archeologists have found evidence, in China, of the existence of a shuttlecock game dating back to 5 BCE when it was used as training for battle.

Sometimes you see them playing with a woven rattan ball called Mey loang.