Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

The Gates of Choeung Ek**

 Our last sightseeing stop with our friends in Phnom Penh was the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, informally known as the Killing Fields. This trip was difficult, not physically, but emotionally. I was ambivalent about bringing Alexa, and I considered staying at home with her because I wasn’t certain what she would see there. However, numerous online reviews and a friend who had been there personally with small children reassured me: the site would not be visually disturbing to a child young enough not to recognize human bones, and as long as we prevented Alexa from running around and playing, her presence would not disrupt others’ experience there or be viewed as disrespectful. Jeff and I agreed that we would take Alexa and hope she slept through the experience. If she didn’t sleep, she would be kept far enough away from the two locations displaying human remains that even an older child would not recognize what was being displayed. All information was imparted via headphones on the self-paced tour, so she would not hear anything that could be disturbing to her, either.

And there was plenty to hear that was very disturbing. On this blog, I will share some of that information, and a picture or two that contain human remains. If you do not wish to be exposed to that information or those images, please don’t read any more of this post. And if you happen to be under the age of 15, please don't read it unless your parent has read it and has told you that it's okay.

The Memorial Stupak**

We arrived at Choeung Ek early in the afternoon. I was struck immediately by the somber, quiet atmosphere that permeated the location. Signs admonished people not to speak loudly, and everyone complied. Most who spoke at all did so barely above a whisper. Everyone wore headphones and listened quietly as the narrator explained in their own language what happened in this peaceful—beautiful, even—setting.

The narrator told how the victims arrived from Tuol Sleng prison, how they had been tortured already and were brought to Choeung Ek specifically to die. Music was played over loudspeakers so that nearby citizens would not hear the screams; chemicals were used to mask the smell. Meticulous records were kept to ensure that no prisoners had escaped en route. Some victims were forced to sign the paperwork themselves, in effect signing their own death warrants. Entire families were killed, including the youngest infants, so that no one would grow up to seek revenge. Bullets were expensive, so they were not used at Choeung Ek, against such weakened and “easy” targets. Instead, machetes were used; sharp ridges from the branches of a local tree were used as knives; hoes and other innocuous tools were used as bludgeons.

The Killing Tree**

The most difficult part of the tour for me was a tree. This tree was located next to a mass grave in which the bodies of women and children had been found. When the site was discovered, the tree was stained red, and no one understood why until the bodies were examined. Apparently a favorite way to kill infants was to hold them by their legs and bash their heads into the trunk of this tree, now known as the Killing Tree. I had heard this information before, but standing there, seeing the tree in front of me and the mass grave beside it; knowing that some of the victims had stood where I stood; that mothers had held their babies right there where I was holding Alexa, waiting for their babies to be taken from them; that women right there had been forced to watch as their babies were murdered … the grief gave way to rage, and I started thinking of what I would do if someone ever tried to harm Alexa—and then it struck me. Those mothers, had they and their infants been alive on this day, would have felt the same as I felt. And had I been there, in their positions, with Alexa, on one of those horror-filled days, I would have felt the same as they did: desperate, hopeless, and unable to do anything to stop what was about to happen. Had I been born a generation ago, in a country across the world from my own, it could have been my baby who was murdered before my eyes, right before I was murdered, too. And had I been born in my own time but in a different location, I could have been the baby whose skull was shattered against that tree. My own housekeeper was a toddler and preschooler during those years—had someone acted on a grudge against her family, had her parents not remained under the radar during those years, it could have been her. This is not ancient history. This is yesterday.

Mass grave in the distance

I hugged Alexa closer to me and turned away from that terrible tree. The tears were welling up in my eyes as I thought about being helpless to save her. Luckily, the moment was interrupted by another tourist who, as so many Asians seem to do, took an undue interest in Alexa. (I’m not being racist here; in all of the sites we visited, the only tourists who felt free to take pictures of my daughter, approach her without invitation, speak to her while ignoring me, and even try to take her from me without ever acknowledging my existence, the only tourists who did these things were Asian. Apparently it’s a cultural thing, viewed as perfectly acceptable to them, and only we westerners are so individualistic as to take offense or view it as threatening when strangers approach our children.) This particular woman was concerned because Alexa’s face was red*. Although I could not understand her words, her gestures and tone of voice clearly indicated her disapproval, and this disapproval combined with her invasion of my personal space—something else that seems to be characteristic of many Asian tourists but not of the Cambodians with whom I’ve interacted—felt threatening to me, although I’m certain she didn’t mean it that way. But I was not in the mood for it at that moment. I hugged Alexa protectively against my chest and glared at the woman, extending the glare to another woman who stopped beside her and joined in. Soon, three or four women surrounded me on three sides, all too close for my comfort. I glared balefully at each of them in turn and turned away. They got the hint and left me alone, although they continued watching and following from a distance, pointing at Alexa and making concerned noises.

Skulls in the Memorial Stupak**

Later, as I sat on a bench with Alexa, waiting for Jeff to finish inside the memorial stupak (which displayed hundreds of bones, so there was no way I was taking Alexa in), the women walked by and smiled and waved at Alexa. This time I felt much more relaxed, and Alexa encouraged them by smiling and playing peek-a-boo around my arm. They also did not approach me, did not make unhappy-sounding noises in my direction, and did not gesture toward Alexa’s still-pink face. Therefore I did not retreat from them.

Memorial Stupak**

Instead, my friend came up and said to Alexa, “How is it that you can make people smile even here?” I hugged her close again, realizing the truth: Alexa’s presence made the horror of the place more real to me, but for everyone else who saw her, she was a ray of light in the darkness. Her beautiful innocence provides hope that tomorrow will not hold the horrors of yesterday.

*Alexa was not sunburned. I don’t recall if she was wearing a hat at the time, but I know she was in the shade, and whenever she’d been in the sun that day, she wore a hat. She, like her mother, gets very red in the face when she gets hot. We’d been outside in the heat most of the day and both of us were bright pink for most of the day and for quite a while after we came indoors.

**All but one of the pictures in this post were taken by a friend. I took a few pictures at Choeung Ek, but not many. These are much better and contain some images that I didn’t think to capture, couldn’t bring myself to memorialize in that moment, or didn’t even see, as we were keeping Alexa away from those sights. The pictures are shown here with permission.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sightseeing in Phnom Penh

Throne Hall and Royal Waiting Room, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Some friends came to visit us not too long ago. We were thrilled to have them here, not only because we wanted to see them, but also because their visit spurred us to do some things we’d been wanting
Banquet Hall, Royal Palace, Phnom Penh
to do but just hadn’t done yet. First, they inspired us to finish up the house—get some stuff shuffled away to the attic, hang some pictures on the walls, arrange our collection of international “treasures” where they can be seen and appreciated. Second, they provided the impetus to get out and do some sightseeing here in Phnom Penh. Third, they motivated us to take a trip to Siem Reap—our first trip outside of Phnom Penh since our arrival in October. I’m going to do a short series of blog posts about their visit, starting with the one day we spent here in Phnom Penh.

A royal treasure
Our friends had definite ideas about where they wanted to go during their time here, and we were happy to oblige them. Because they wanted to focus on Siem Reap, they chose to limit the sites we visited here in Phnom Penh to what could be managed easily in one day. After looking through their guidebook, they provided me with a list and asked me to map out an itinerary that would work well in the city. That was easy enough to do, after seeing their list: We’d start at the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (the site with the most restrictive hours), go up to Wat Phnom, stop by Central Market, and spend the rest of the day at the Killing Fields, stopping for lunch whenever we got hungry. Accordingly, we ate a breakfast of bagels and fruit, then stepped outside, where our regular tuk tuk driver was waiting for us.

On the Throne Hall
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Royal Palace. I go by it almost every time I travel to the embassy, but the wall around it is too high to see over. Some websites and guidebooks indicated that the only part of the palace that’s open to tourists is the Silver Pagoda compound; others said that parts of the palace grounds are open, too. We just assumed that our driver would know where to drop us off, and we’d see where we were allowed to go once we were inside. It was a good plan. Our driver dropped us at the tourist entrance and showed us where he’d be waiting when we were done (we’d come out a different gate), and we headed in. We entered through a small courtyard that contained a map, a ticket booth, and a pretty bridge. Once we had tickets in hand, we continued down a wide walkway lined with statues. At the end, we rounded a corner and I, at least, stopped in delight.

Chan Chaya Pavilion
The vista that opened up before us included large green areas and several beautiful buildings, all with distinctive, ornate Khmer rooflines. Only a small part was open to the public, with the rest declared off-limits by discreet signs, but that small part was wonderful. The statues and buildings begged to be captured in pictures, and there were clear views even of the off-limits areas for even more photographic opportunities. We saw the Throne Hall, the Royal Offices building, the Royal Waiting Room, and the Banquet Hall. We went inside the Royal Treasury. From the porch around the Throne Hall, I was able to get pictures of Chan Chaya Pavilion—it was in an off-limits area, although I would have loved to go walk around inside that beautiful structure!
The Reamker

After we finished in the Palace, we stepped through a wall into the Silver Pagoda compound. The first thing to catch my eye there was a mural painted on the inside of the wall around the compound. The mural depicts scenes from the Reamker, called Ramayana in India. I’m not familiar with the story, but the vibrant colors were gorgeous.

Shrine inside the Silver Pagoda compound
A few more steps brought us to the courtyard. The compound didn’t have the grassy areas of the Royal Palace compound; instead the whole area was paved, with huge potted plants, statues, spirit houses, and several small buildings dotting the landscape. Our erstwhile tour guide—a friend whose tour book rarely left her hand while we were out and about—took us around the area, saving the Silver Pagoda itself for last. We admired the library, walked by the equestrian statue of King Norodom, entered the pavilion housing a huge “footprint of Buddha,” and climbed the small artificial hill. We admired the scale model of Angkor Wat, anticipating seeing the real thing in just a few days, and finally entered the pagoda itself.
Silver Pagoda, with a scale model of Angkor Wat in front of it

I hate to admit it, but I was a little disappointed. Maybe I’m misremembering how totally awesome this pagoda is, as pictures were not allowed; after all, how could it not be the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen when the staircase is Italian marble, it houses the Emerald Buddha (made of crystal), there’s a lifesize gold Buddha containing no fewer than 9584 diamonds, and it also contains a bronze Buddha, a silver Buddha, and figurines made of solid gold, not to mention the silver floor that gave it its name? But when I was standing inside the pagoda, looking around, my first thought was “This is cool. If I’d seen it before I saw Wat Phnom, I’d’ve been really impressed.” The place just felt cold and lifeless to me, dark in spite of the lamps, when compared with the vibrant colors that characterize Wat Phnom.
Inside Wat Phnom

Luckily, that’s where we headed next. We didn’t spend much time there, only an hour or so. Like the last time I was at Wat Phnom, I saw no monkeys and no elephants. Unlike the last time, however, a group of musicians were playing traditional music inside the wat. Although I appreciated the music—and I’ve read on blogs that for a small tip, the musicians even will give your child an impromptu music lesson—it caused me not to stay inside for very long. Alexa, who was getting sleepy, seemed to be bothered by it, as it was very loud. We spent a few minutes inside the wat and a few more roaming the grounds, and then we were ready to move on.

Our next stop was Central Market. I had been under the impression that our friends weren't interested in shopping, but that impression turned out to be wrong. We quickly found
Central Market
ourselves in front of the same booth where Jeff and I had purchased silk wall hangings, listening in as our friend haggled over some scarves. After several minutes and a couple of times when I thought it was a lost cause, we left the booth, scarves nestled in a bag carried by our friends. Shortly after that, we bought a couple of coconuts. As we watched, the vendor—wearing what looked like a police uniform—hacked off an end and stuck a straw down into the fruit before handing it over. After seeing some of the juice squirt violently out of the straw, I appreciated his care in pointing it away from us during this process! We all had sips from the coconut, but Alexa drank most of one all by herself. She’d been resisting our efforts to hydrate her all day, and apparently this, unlike water, hit the spot. A little more time found us in front of a vendor selling wood carvings, listening as our friend haggled over a carved mask. Her price seemed unreasonably low to me, but I knew she had it when she walked away and the vendor looked desperately at my friend’s husband, who just shrugged, and then grabbed the mask and headed into the warren of stalls after my friend. As I watched the haggling at Central Market and then later in Siem Reap, I realized that I could learn a lot about this art form from my friend!

Our purchases from Tabitha
Purchases completed (for now), we headed back to the tuk tuk and decided it was time for lunch. We visited Mama’s, a Thai place in Boeung Keng Kong, where we enjoyed a tasty and filling lunch. Afterward, we visited the Tabitha store, a non-government organization (NGO; otherwise known as a charity) that helps break the cycle of poverty by developing cottage industries in which women can earn money for their families. I’d never visited their store before, although it’s been on my list for a while, and I was amazed to see the variety of things that were available. We bought two adorable dresses for Alexa, two colorful balls made from cotton, and a stuffed gecko (maybe made from raw silk) that we’re going to experiment with to see if it, and more like it, can be used to decorate the walls in the playroom. Our friends also made some purchases, including an ingenious handbag made from recycled metal. I was highly impressed with everything that Tabitha had to offer, and we’ll definitely be making more purchases and more visits with any other friends who come to see us here.

After that, we stopped by our house to drop off all our purchases before heading back out to the Killing Fields. I will write about that visit, but I think it deserves a post of its own, especially as this post is getting long, so I’ll end this one here and save that one for another time.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Child Proof? Or Adult Proof?

An un-child-proofed kitchen: A toddler's dream, a parent's nightmare!
Living overseas, you sometimes experience events that are beyond-belief hilarious. The hilarity does not always translate well into the written word, as I fear may be the case this time, but I’ve found that it’s important to me to try. I love looking back and remembering these events, and having a written record helps. Back in December, one such event occurred. I chronicled it as it was happening on Facebook, and I intended to put it on the blog too, but I just didn’t get around to it.

I’m getting around to it now.

A little context: Alexa is a curious toddler who loves to get into everything. She especially enjoys exploring cabinets and drawers. This can be a problem, especially in the kitchen. So, like many parents, we wanted to put child locks on the lower cabinets and drawers. Some of the cabinets were convenient: they’re the mirror-image style, and you can just buy a simple U-lock to secure the pulls to each other. Voila, neither cabinet can open. But other cabinets are stand-alone, and the drawers of course would need something other than these easily installed and uninstalled U-locks. As I started looking into the other options, I quickly discovered from product reviews that the adhesive-mount ones were pulled off rather easily by toddlers determined to explore the nooks and crannies under the countertops. I wanted to use the screw-mounted version instead. The problem is that this is not our house. We asked GSO (not sure what the acronym stands for, but they’re the ones who handle everything to do with the house) for permission to install screw-mounted child safety locks. We were granted permission, but were told not to install them ourselves. In order to minimize the damage done to the cabinets, they wanted to send their own people to install them. No problem, I thought: I get my screw-mounted locks, and Jeff and I don’t even have to install them! What could be better? I ordered them off Amazon, and we dutifully put in the work order when they arrived. Some men from GSO showed up at my house the next day, 22 December 2011, around 9am. I showed them how the locks work and how they should be installed, then settled back to watch them work. (I’m required to have them escorted while they’re inside my house, and Alexa wanted to play with our housekeeper, so I sent the two of them off to the playroom while I supervised.) After almost an hour, I realized that one of those must-be-captured events was underway, so I pulled out my phone and posted a status on Facebook, then posted several updates as the hilarity continued. Here’s what I wrote (with edits for spelling and clarity):

Two Cambodian men currently are chuckling and having a fine old time trying to figure out how to install the child locks on our bottom kitchen cabinets. I'm kind of glad that GSO told us they had to do the install to avoid damaging the cabinets--now if there are problems, it's on them not us!Top of Form

So far we have one drawer completely emptied, and one cabinet that's had a partial install, then an uninstall when he realized he'd put it too low on the door and it wouldn’t catch the hook up top. I think this may take a while. We only have 20 drawers and 6 cabinets under the counters, after all!

Now we have both of them working on one drawer, which has been removed from its slot completely.

Now the drawer won't open AT ALL because they didn't leave room for it to slide out enough to disengage the lock. I'm trying hard not to laugh too much!

And hoping they can open it to rescue my stuff and fix it!

Success! One drawer seems to be done. Maybe now that they've gotten the hang of it, the rest will go more easily. [They ended up using a knife to open it—they slid it down into the tiny opening they’d left room for and used it to push the lock down enough to disengage it.]

A friend commented: You should be videoing this...sounds like a youtuber!!!!

I wanted to take pictures but decided that would be rude ... especially since I already was laughing at/with them at the time!

Now a third man has joined them. Until now he was doing something with the generator outside.

Two hours later, all done. I really am glad we had to let them do it instead of doing it ourselves
The men obviously did complete the work. For most of the time, there were just the two of them working. One did most of the drawers. He completely emptied each drawer, removed it from its place, installed the two pieces of the lock, and then reinserted the drawer. Unfortunately I don’t recall how he handled the ones in the corners, which cannot be pulled out completely because they catch on the pull of their neighbor-around-the-corner. The other focused on the cabinets, but spent several moments watching the first guy when he ran out of cabinets and had to figure out drawers.

I really wish I had video … then you’d be laughing with me.

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