When not holed up in the ODC office debating the best way to translate the catalog, under various design techniques that may or may not be impossible due to the systematic restrictions, and invest a lot of time learning about concessions throughout Cambodia, I’m the guy that’s off in search of adventure. I’m an “adventure librarian,” or I will be when I get my MLIS (for now I’m just an “adventure guy”). One of my biggest flaws and biggest strengths (one and the same) is my curiosity. I have my hands in many buckets for a reason: I really enjoy checking new things out, and even if I don’t become a master at any of them, I try my hardest to understand the topical relevance of each and every activity I get involved with. From eating fish head curry in Singapore to trekking the rainforest in Johor, from sitting and meditating in the Angkor Wat library to stumbling around at two in the morning through the streets of Nha Trang, Vietnam, I like to get a taste as much life as possible.
This week I got to flex my adventure muscles and take some time to revisit Siem Reap, which is a small town approximately 300km to the Northwest of Phnom Penh. I visited the town not to spend more money and more camera clicks on the Angkor temple complexes, but rather to engage in a National Community Media Competition and Festival (I don’t know if this is the actual title of the event, but it’s pretty close regardless). The celebration of culture had its ups and downs, but this was the real deal. As I mentioned in my last post, part of the internship experience is understanding language, and my argument was that language goes beyond that which is spoken and written, and is also related to the general sharing of culture.
I went with the ODC “director” (Terry, in the photo above) and the EWMI Grassroots Coordinator (Sao Sotheary, who is standing next to Terry in the picture). The event, in a nutshell, was fairly straightforward: participants who won local cultural competitions (on the provincial level) all gathered just outside of central Siem Reap (strangely and surreally in a tent on the side of the road near a local market) for two days. Each group performed multiple times to the general audience. In an act of solidarity (or just general unity) everyone was given blue shirts and caps. The “tribal” (I hate using that word) groups, who are also in the picture above, from areas like Mondulkiri, did not wear the event garb, but were noticeable enough. I had actually seen a handful of the performers in Phnom Penh at a Cambodian music event earlier during my time here. The country is quite small, as you know.
The first day we arrived on the scene and I realized that aside from my coworkers, nobody else “looked” foreigner (IE Westerner) and a strange set of isolation set in. I hardly know the language, but I was able to hear all of the locations of the participants easily enough, and during one stage play, I heard “sa” (white) come out of one of the actor’s mouths and everyone looking at me chuckling in warmth. It was a nice event: one that tested my patience for being alone and immersed in local culture, and one that allowed me the introspection of many cultures in Cambodia, and many “issues” (from human trafficking to poly-amory to general poverty). While I was supposed to stay at the event with the others until 10pm, a fairly horrendous storm broke out around six and the tent nearly collapsed. Heroic and aghast, I held the tent’s main structure up as short Cambodian men scrambled around me to make the necessary preparations (as the wind howled and the rain poured). It was dramatic.
During the first day I also was delightfully surprised to meet a handful of participants who spoke English and were extremely polite and kind to me. The three young ones below are garment workers at factories in Phnom Penh City, as they called it. Sreywin, the “leader” (called such because she knew the most English and was the most outgoing) shared posters with me (describing the terrible living and working conditions these and many other workers had to go through, pictured below) and even helped translate some of the performances on the second day.
One of the joys of getting out of Phnom Penh is striving to actually see new things. As with any city, Phnom Penh offers you some great insight into life and life’s many pros and cons, but the cyclical nature of it can grow a bit neutralizing. I often feel, living here, that much of my life is dictated by what I know rather than what I want to find out. There are safeties and securities. There are things that we enjoy and depend on, that we come to expect in our daily life: the grocery store, the source of information or educator, the friends, the restaurants. All of these things add up to comfort, convenience, and a degree of the casual that might be stifling to the scholarly experience. The journey outside, to Siem Reap, helped to spice things up a bit.
I’ve been getting to know a lot of writers in Cambodia, and by the end of my time here I will know, probably, the most active ones. Part of the pleasure of working with writers is in connecting to other people who care about Cambodian culture. One of my friends in Phnom Penh, a student of the workshop I taught, Chheangly, is from Siem Reap. His sister and her family lives there. Before going to the second day of the event, they met me outside the hotel where I got to talk and hangout with them. We discussed family, education, culture, politics, and, most importantly, raising a child. (The husband’s name is Bongthom and the daughter’s name is Nathalee.) Though it would have been nice to have them join me at the festival event, it was clear that they had to spend a lot of time out of their routine just to come visit me at the hotel, and they had a lot to do later that day.
Another lovely experience during my trip was visiting the Center for Khmer Studies. Located in Wat Damnak, just south of the river in Siem Reap, this information hub might be home to one of the best libraries I’ve seen in Cambodia. Complete with books from the entire region, lots of archived documents, the part I enjoyed most was the beautiful interior design. I originally visited this library and information space back in August, but was so exhausted and wrecked by travel that I didn’t talk with anyone or pay too much attention to the setting, but after this latest visit, I can still see the reflections of the sun in the polished wood right now!
One of my regrets was not taking pictures with the folks I visited. I met the head librarian, Oum Daraneth, and the head director, Krisna Uk. You can see them here. I first talked at length about CKS and the various projects and capabilities the venue has to offer. I discussed my own history and learned a lot about the extensive history of Krisna. I was then introduced to the library’s front-end via Daraneth. The library itself is still in the process of being cataloged, but should be completed soon. There are thousands of resources in the stacks, and my first thought after browsing was: “Why don’t I live in Siem Reap and read these every day?” It’s a consideration to make in the future, for sure.
CKS’s library, which is not accessible online, unfortunately, also uses NewGenLib (the same ILS that we use at ODC, for those of you who haven’t read about my explorations of it previously). They host NewGenLib locally on computer terminals and an internal network that is “turned off at the end of the day.” IE: a local computer is hosting the library rather than a true server. Their goal is to get the library up and accessible online. I think it’s possible. But they want to finish the catalog first.
I mentioned my work with poetry and writers in Cambodia, and while I could write pages and pages on that alone, I’ll keep it to a minimum. I wanted to mention my time with the tuk tuk poet Prakchhim Say, an amazing guy who I shared a couple meals with and talked about writing with extensively, is seen in the pic above at the festival. In addition to driving me around in his tuk tuk, Prakcchim joined the first day of the festival and hung around, meeting artists and generally engaging the community at large. A writer with a wife an five children, Prakchhim spends all his free time writing. It was great to expose him to this event which, it as clear, he had not heard about before. If I get any future funding for projects in the future, one of the main things I’m going to do is come out with a print and digital newsletter and community spaces where Cambodian writers and artists can learn about new events. The gap in communication appears to be one of the largest barriers here, and it’s especially concerning because those who do go to the events and learn about organizations and projects are almost always positively engaging them.
During the second day of the event, I was alone. Terry and Sotheary had to go back to Phnom Penh and I decided to stick it out to see what I could see and cover the rest of the event. After a morning of work and rest, I met with the wonderful labor organizers I mentioned earlier in this post and they befriended me. It was gracious on their part, but also clear that they were feeling slightly as “isolated” as I was, having come up from the city and not really knowing anyone. At the threat of yet another rainstorm, the end of the event closed with a magnificent dance party on the stage that brought Cambodians from all the provinces (and the tall white guy, me) together in harmony.
The strange thing for me was the combination of music being played and blasted through the tower of speaker cabs on the bed of the truck next to the stage: Cambodian, Korean, and American. In the case of my own country’s contributions, it was mainstream hip hop. As the rain poured down around us, I looked at my life, my internship, my adventure, and let myself go. So what I was feeling completely out of place. So what I had felt alone for so long during this festival that was truly foreign to me. Moving my body around on the dance floor, a young Cambodian guy came over and asked, “Are you happy?” with a grin on his face. I nodded and said “very happy” (knyom sop-bai ai na), and he laughed. And then the rain grew (pleung thom) and everybody ran off the stage like it was the end of the world. And it was, but in a good way, a revitalizing way. From that end came the birth of a new one.
I guess I have to wrap this post up somehow. A lot of the internship involved me hanging out in the hotel, Rithy Rine, and doing work for ODC. I had transferred the cataloging and coordinating of the library from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. This is the joy of communication, I suppose! And it was a productive experience. I had some good food, too. And some not-so-good food. I certainly felt rested after being in the town, and I certainly enjoyed the entire experience. The 6 hour ride back? Well, the only highlight was seeing the little girl with the living spider (well, “tarantula,” as Cambodians are proud to correct, or “abping” in Khmer) in Skuon, a town nicknamed Spiderville and one I had always wanted to visit. I did not eat the spider, having already tried it in Phnom Penh.
This post is about adventure and how it’s affected my internship. One thing about travel is reflection on the tried and true cyclical experience of living in the city. When I returned to Phnom Penh, got off the bus, and walked the hour back to the office (refusing all transportation since my legs needed significant assistance after being in the bus for six hours), I entered sweaty and tired and happy. I was back in my space of understanding, the space I know and identify with. The library sat there, ready to be engaged with. The coworkers welcomed me back (and jokingly scoffed when I said I hadn’t brought any gifts back). It was time to get “back to work” and I was more than ready to jump in.
I just realized I haven’t really written about my coworkers/team members/colleagues/etc. That will be the focus for the next post.