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.

Friday, February 26, 2010

I can no longer claim to be the mother of two teenagers


IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Happy 20th Birthday B xx

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Slightly off balance

The next day, our last day in Rome, we had left free intending to use it for a day trip by train to either Pompeii, to the south east, or to Pisa, to the north. The forecast the night before had been for all day rain which we decided would make exploring Pompeii fairly miserable so Pisa it was. We woke early to a damp, grey morning, rugged up and trudged, umbrellas in hand, the by now familiar path to the tram then the central station where we bought return tickets from the yellow automated ticket boxes for the not quite three hour trip to Pisa.

Pisa, population about 87 000, manages to feel both quaint and working class at the same time. The twenty minute walk from the station to the world famous Leaning Tower takes you through cobbled pedestrian streets dodging bicycle riding locals, past cafes full of university students, through narrow lanes lined with fabulous doorways, balconys and arches, crosses busy 'main' throughfares where Italians drive Italian made cars at break neck speed ignoring both lights and pedestrian crossings- felt right at home we did!- and over the thick grey Arno River.

Finally at the end of the street we saw this...

...emerging like a fairy tale, out of the mist. The tourists, the rain, the cold all fell away muzzled by the dreamlike scene that was unfolding at the end of the road.

The tower is part of the aptly named Square of Miracles, a world heritage site. It's historical name is the Piazza del Duomo, a walled area inside the city walls of Old Pisa that encompasses the Duomo, the Baptistry, Camposanto and two museums, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and Museo del Sinopie and of course the Torre pendente di Pisa. Entry tickets can be bought separately or in combinations. Of course we went for the upsized whoppa combo and booked in for the next time slot, in a not too shabby 45 minutes time, for the tower tour. With time on our hands, after a quick stop at the some of the cleanest toilets in Italy, we headed towards the main door of the Duomo.

The heavily decorated cast bronze doors of the Cathedral are incredible and were made by students after the originals were destroyed by fire in 1595. Each of the six doors is made up of narrative panels of biblical scenes like pages of a story book.

The outside of the church, like it's accompanying campanile (the bell tower we all know better as the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and Baptistry, is embellished in exquisite detail like sugar icing on a wedding cake...

...with the delicate columns and fine rounded arches that are characteristic of the Romanesque style.

Inside the nave is all slim striped arches, tall columns and for the size of the church an abundance of large luminous pieces of Renaissance art, huge golden mosaics and colourful wall frescos.

The bronze chandelier, hanging at the centre of the nave, is known as Galileo's chandelier due to an impossible legend that claims that Galileo Galilei's theories relative to the pendulum, came to him while he was at mass and became distracted by the oscillating chandelier. Unfortunately, although it does paint a fabulous image of a pew bound Galileo eyes heavenward, the story of the chandelier can't possibly be true since the light was hung four years after he went public with his theory. Galileo was, however, born in Pisa and even taught at Pisa University where in his notes he uses the tower to dispute Aristotle's theory that objects fall at a speed proportionate to their weight. While Galileo didn't actually drop anything from the tower, as his experiment described, a student of his did only to find one of the balls did hit the ground slightly faster satisfying Aristotle's smug followers who obviously hadn't read about Galileo's theories of viscosity or wind friction.

Amid all the clean simple lines of the churches interior a heavily ornate piece stands out. The pulpit- just seen in the left of the picture- by Giovanni Pisano took eight long years to complete then, considered a gothic eyesore during the renovations after the fire, was dismantled and stored in a crate for the next 330 years. Rediscovered in 1926 it was painstakingly reassembled (although slightly differently from it's original) and placed further from the altar than its original place on the north side of the nave.

The lower supports are a combination of simple colums and sculptured figures. Pisa or Ecclesia is shown suckling two newborns and the female personification of Fortitude holds a lion. Prudence is depicted as 'Venus pudica', with her modesty intact unlike poor Hercules, seen above, who is shown older than his usual six packed form and with a vaguely resigned look about him I thought.

The platform of Pisano's elaborate rostrum has nine carved panels that lean outwards slightly, towards it's audience. Again they depict biblical stories and are packed tight with animated characters. The undercutting is so deep in places the figures seem to animate right out of the reliefs.

Being inside Italy's churches is like being inside a prism with treasure all around. Walls, floors and ceilings all hold eye candy and food for the soul.

Our next stop in the Square of Miracles was the probably the most famous and the most visited campanile in the world.

You are not allowed to take any bags, purses or 'containers of any kind' up the tower so after depositing our one handbag sized backpack at the bag check we waited, as we'd been instructed, in the warmth of the waiting room for the clock to tick slowly past our ticketed time. The 'guide' our small group had been told would meet us in true Italian style never eventuated so with the intention of clarifying the instructions we approached the two guards at the towers entrance. They checked the ticket time and then simply waved us through the scafolding to the bottom of the 294 helicodal steps. The passageway is not really wide enough for the two way traffic it services although it's definately wider than the climb up to Saint Peter's cupola. The marble steps were wet because of the rain, worn away in the middle by centuries of footfalls and tilted outwards and then inwards with the tower's inclination as we spiraled our way to the top. It was not quite enough to make me dizzy but definately left me with a heady sense of pending nausea. The cool misty air at the top was welcome relief.

The main steps come out at the seventh level, the logge, a viewing platform from where the whole of the grassed area of the square can be clearly seen. It is thought that on festival and market days dignitaries and visitors would climb the tower for the best view of the proceedings below. There is another tunnel like set of steps leading to a circular walkway at the very top of the towers apex where you can see J in the photo above.

The platform area also houses the 'bell theatre'. Five big bells hang in a circle tuned clockwise to a rising musical scale though they haven't been heard for 60 years as there are fears their vibrations could cause a catastrophic collapse. The biggest bell, called L'Assunta, weighs in at 3620kgs. It really is no wonder the tower is slowly sinking into the tundra!

The towers first stone was laid in 1173 but it took twelve years to get as high as the third floor and by then the building was already beginning to lean. Built as a boastful statement to bitter rivals Florence (Genoa) it's construction was a stop start affair due to frequent warring with the neighbouring state. It must have made the Genoans smile to learn the tower skite was in fact sinking into the ground.

The problem was pondered for nearly a century while the ground beneath 'settled' then begun again by Giovanni di Simone, the architect of the nearby Camposanto (which we visited later), who made the subsequent floors higher in an effort to compensate. It didn't.

Over the centuries there have been a number of attempts to correct the lean and thus save the tower from it's eventual collapse. In 1990 the tilt was measured at 13 feet and it was promptly closed off while experts from around the world were called in to find a way to rectify the situation.  Straightening the tower enough to make it safe again without completely removing the character that gave it it's name, defacing the globally recognisable building in any way or adversally affecting any of the area in the famous square was a mammoth task. According to the lego animation of the restoration we watched at one of the museums on site; steel stabilising cables were first attached to the tower in a way such that they could be easily removed without damaging the towers exterior then 870 metric tons of counterweight added to the 'tall' side which not only halted the slippage but pulled the tower gently back towards centre. A wedge of soil was then carefully removed from the side opposite the tilt using a corkscrew like action correcting at the rate of about a degree a month and the existing foundation anchored in place with concrete. A complex system of computerised monitors measures the progress over several more months and eventually the tower is slowly, tenuously bought back to an acceptable lean. All of this took ten years. When the tower was reopened to the public again in 2001 it was 'guaranteed' for the next 200 years. Data from the still imbedded computers has suggested the tower has now actually stopped moving entirely.

All this meddling may have saved the tower but it's lesser tilt meant it lost its place in the Guinness Book of World Records to a German church steeple.