Friday, November 23, 2007

Elephants, guns and goodbyes... just another week in PP

I have spent the last fifteen minutes trying to work out how to start this post. I’m sure you’ll agree that it is not easy to find a neat, concise way of explaining that, last Saturday, while my three-year-old daughter was riding down the road, perched high upon the back of Phnom Penh’s only resident elephant, Sambo, a man tried to throw rocks at the poor beast and threatened to shoot the mahoot. Yes, it’s a messy sentence, whichever way you look at it. This is what happens when I let James take care of the children.

Life is full of surprises here. I’ll start at the beginning. Yesterday afternoon I had the rare opportunity of some time alone with Jemima. (Srey Mach stayed for the afternoon and looked after Bella). We took a cyclo down to the river to watch the preparations for the Water Festival which starts today.

Phnom Penh was excited! Large boats packed with people travelling from the provinces blasted music out to let us know they had arrived. Some towed long, dug-out canoes behind them, soon to be decorated like ancient war vessels. More of these sped by, powered by at least 20 perfectly-synchronised paddles on each side. The men on the end of each oar were standing up and chanting something, presumably to keep the momentum going. They were practicing for the boat races which will go on over the next three days. It reminded me of being back home in front of the telly cheering for Oxford to win the annual Oxford Cambridge boat race. My father still has his commemorative oars hanging on the wall of his study.

Sitting by the river watching the village teams at work, I realised that I was feeling something for the first time in Cambodia – community spirit. I wonder if this existed before the country was traumatised by thirty years of war and terror. And how many generations need to pass before it becomes possible again. If there is anytime of year when it feels likely, it is now. For the next three days Phnom Penh will be bursting with crowds. Most of Cambodia flocks to the city to celebrate the reversal of the Tonle Sap’s water flow, and the beginning of the fishing season. Most expats will be headed in the opposite direction.

I never understand why. This is the most colourful and festive national event in the Khmer calendar, and unlike most other celebrations, it takes place in the city rather than in the village pagodas. Phnom Penh lights up, literally. At night the trees, monuments, Royal Palace and main boulevards twinkle with white fairy lights, and fireworks flash in the sky. Last year we tuk-tuked through the crowds to the river and sat and watched the huge floats go by, each with its own light structure (Angkor Wat, Apsaras, ANZ bank’s corporate logo…). From a distance they look like flames on the water.

I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, by the river with Jemima. We stayed there for about an hour talking to the mottled crew that lives and works along its banks. Tiny, naked children and ancient women with toothless smiles tried to sell us snacks and toys. Polio and land-mine victims, and mothers, breastfeeding toddlers from empty, withered breasts begged for a few riel. As I ran out of cheer and small change, and Jemima tired of having her cheeks pinched by fascinated strangers, we retreated to a café and sat high up, overlooking the river. Jemima was delighted with her ice-cream. I was left with the now familiar feeling that that I had somehow copped out, that I could and should do more, the usual conflict of what is good for my daughter and what is good for Cambodians.

Then suddenly we forgot everything, because there, ambling along the river front, weaving in and out of SUVs, Tuk Tuks and motos, was Sambo, who is, as I was saying, Phnom Penh’s only resident elephant.

Although we have seen him many times walking alongside the traffic like this, (he goes home for his tea and rest at 4pm after a day’s work carrying tourists around the bottom of Wat Phnom), it never ceases to be surreal to see a tired, old elephant strolling along amidst the hustle and bustle of busy modern city life. As usual I wished I had had my camera.

“I rode on Sambo’s back at Lucy’s party!” Jemima shouted excitedly.

I did know this. James had told me when he came back from the farewell party on Saturday morning. Lucy’s mother had hired the elephant to take the kids for little walks up and down her street. Ingenious I thought. I do not generally support the use of elephants for our leisure but it is hard to begrudge a few small, very light kids an experience they will never get back home. And what a way to say goodbye to three years of living in Asia! I admit when I found out I did feel a little concerned about the chances of Jemima falling off on to the hard concrete, but then Sambo was a city elephant so he was hardly likely to trip or run.

What I had not yet been told (five days later) was that in Cambodia it is considered good luck to pass underneath the belly of an elephant. And, that apparently, to miss out on this rare, potentially life-changing opportunity incites a man to throw rocks at said elephant or threaten to shoot his mahoot!

Ah well, its all water under an elephant’s tummy now, and no one was hurt. We said good bye to Doris and Lucy last night after she spent a lovely afternoon playing with Jemima. They hugged for ages and it was a very odd feeling watching them walk down the street knowing that we are unlikely to ever see them again.

Ho hum, just another week in Phnom Penh. At least I can never complain that being a stay-at-home mother is dull.


Tara said...

Elephants are big in SL too - but not on the streets of Colombo! We content ourselves with horses...not sure about any traditions related to the riding of those although it seems to be a requirement that the boy / man leading your child around on the horse needs to reek of arrack (local brew!)

Sarah said...

Wow, a bit too exciting!

Love the entry before about school, too - Teacher Lisa sounds wonderful. S is at a nursery with a similar outlook, it's great when you find the right place for them to go to. And so agree on the quiet afternoons, we can't do too much at all in the afternoon for fear of complete meltdown.

Izzy said...

Sounds very bizarre - what's a mahoot?!
Tom would have loved it. He loves elephants and sticks his hand in the air making a trumpeting sound whenever he sees a pcture of one! Amazing what they imitate isnt it?

Georgie said...

Hellooooooooooo! A mahoot is an elephant trainer/rider/owner - you know, the guy on top!!