Parallel U
pt. I

Number 15–Holiday Time

There are 26 official days off a year in Cambodia, (the highest in the world, I'm told) including International Women's day, Human Rights Day and three new years, Khmer, Chinese and International, but both Parallel U and its students do their best to stretch them even further. Parallel’s students pay by the year ($400 for a full year's tuition) but we teachers are paid for the actual hours we teach so the school is always finding reasons to cancel classes. For the students, on the other hand, holidays are always good excuses for long weekends, and very long weekends.

For instance, Khmer New Year was April 14-16, Sunday to Tuesday, whereas school was officially closed from the Friday before, the 12th till the Monday following, the 22nd. However only six of 40 students showed for one Thursday class, none showed for the other, and only a handful showed for Wednesday's class. The term officially ended for two of my classes on April 10th but, considering the closeness of the holiday the students unilaterally decided to make the fifth their last class. I get back on Monday the 22nd then there's a holiday on the 26th, then another on the 30th. I didn't want to work that hard anyway.

One of my students has taken to treating me and showing me around. Victor (assumed) Pity (real) is 29, married with a three year old and another due in two months. He's a sales manager for a local cement company and earns enough to have a car and take me places I'd not likely see otherwise. First he invited me out to eat with a couple of business friends at to another friend's restaurant just outside of town.

The restaurant’s across the Japanese Friendship Bridge. The US drops bombs, Japan builds bridges. They just finished a new one 60 miles upstream on the Mekong. Every afternoon hundreds of people gravitate to the new one to get their pictures taken, watch the sunset and just marvel at it, which is not great for traffic flow. It's a big bridge over a big river, but not very wide so marvelers spill way over off the sidewalk into the traffic lane. Getting back to the restaurant, it’s on the north side of town in a wedge of land between the two rivers, an area that's mostly wetlands or fill. A large part of Cambodia is flooded on a seasonal basis. What isn't on fill is raised on high stilts – the water level on the rivers here rises about 30 feet every rainy season.

At any rate, about a mile after you cross the bridge the road meets up with and then closely parallels the Mekong. From that point for the next couple of miles there are at least 50 restaurants on both sides of the road and fronting the river that range in capacity from 100 up to 5000. My first thought: How are there so many people with the cars or transportation to patronize all those restaurants? Beats me but they do. It's another example of their extreme tendency toward clustering.

Victor's friend's place seats 1500. It's back from the road and built into a man-made pond – the bandstand and most of the seating is built right over the water. It's also well stocked with fish and comes complete with a duck-shaped pedal-driven boat. When you first sit down you are swarmed with young women representing different beer and wine companies. I'd been seeing, in bars and restaurants all over town, these women wearing semi-traditional dresses with a sash including the name of a beer but couldn't imagine what all they were about. It turns out they're hostesses, actually called beer promotion ladies, who work for the breweries and essentially provide free labor for the eateries, as long as you're drinking their beer. The companies have minivans and drive around loaded with spares in case a bar is especially busy.

Once the band starts at the beginning of dinner hour they play continuously till closing – all sappy Khmer pop – but there are seven or eight singers, both male and female, who take turns at the mic. Guests also get to croon if they're good enough; also helps to know the boss – Victor has it both ways and always gets to sing. He took me there a second time for lunch, this time with an ulterior motive – he's responsible for writing contracts in English and wanted some help – I was glad to oblige.

He also took me out to his place, which his family shares with his in- laws, for dinner. It's a few miles outside of town in a setting of classic suburban sprawl – a house here, a house there, set among the fields. Difficult night; the home cooked food tasted fine... except for that piece of chicken (they have no refrigeration) which only tipped the scales – I had serious stomach pains on the way out and wound up doing a serious barf – first in a long time. Kinda embarrassing.

Then he invited me to his company’s holiday dinner at the same restaurant and once there, on the spur of the moment, offered to take me to his family's place for Khmer New Year. How could I refuse? I just needed to be adaptable, he said. No need to worry about me, I responded.

So we loaded up his Camry with his wife and kid, brother and his wife and three kids and two nephews and a niece who were being delivered back to the country – it was tight. His mom lives on a well traveled country road that comes complete with minibus service. Road conditions however only allow for a bone jarring, 5 to 10 mph snails pace – Victor says they're going to fix it next year.

The house is partly sided in vertical one-by-tens, partly in straw mat. The floor is split bamboo with lots of air spaces between the slats. Even when the floors out here are wood, there's still plenty of space to let air come through. There's no electricity, though they did have two small car-battery-run flourescent lights. When the battery runs down they take into town to a charging shop and exchange it for a fresh one. Eighty percent of Cambodians are not hooked up. When juice is available the cost is often exorbitant. A news article a while back explained how the government is negotiating with Viet Nam to provide power to neighboring provinces. Current cost is 50 cents a kwh, hooking up with VN will bring it down to 18 cents – still almost three times what Portlanders pay.

His mom lives in the heart of rice paddy land – fortunately there was a little patch of grass and trees not far from the house where I could set up my hammock. We'd had significant rain only once (two weeks ago) since last December but then it rained like hell last night – dropped the temperature by 10 degrees – 76 this morning. At any rate it was extremely dry out there and I frequently saw people digging down to try to reach water for their livestock. Right beside my hammock there was an old guy of about 70 who was very, very slowly digging out his water hole, but before I left getting only moist clay. Fortunately the water table is very close to the surface here, and monsoon begins soon.

Victor hadn't mentioned it but his brother told me the story of the Khmer Rouge murdering his father when he was two, Victor one. Left his mother with seven kids to raise. Of course everybody has a tragic KR story considering Pol Pot managed to kill twenty percent of the Khmer people in just 4 years. Sometimes I think these people are so happy and easy going because they feel just lucky to have survived.

I spent two nights at his mom's then the next day at a beach town at an extremely crowded beach and then took a swim in an extremely crowded river – the holiday comes at the hottest time of the year so makes sense. Third night we spent at his parent's godchildren in Kampot, a town about 15 miles from the sea on a wide estuary. It was peaceful and beautiful and I stayed an extra night after Victor and the entourage went back to PP.

The 75 miles from Kampot to PP takes about 2.5 hours on a minibus or taxi, much longer on the train, but I'd been wanting a Cambodia train experience and had plenty of time so thought; perfect opportunity. I took a hot leisurely walk to the train station (1.5 miles) and got there about one; the train arrived at two. It pulls up, but it's a freight train. I see people sitting in the open doors of several boxcars and some sitting on top, but no passenger cars.

Wait a minute, I paid a lot for this ride (almost $2, they've just instituted a 300% soak-the-foreigner surcharge) besides I've seen passenger cars sitting at the PP train station and heard stories of endless hours sitting on hard wood seats, so I had to go back to the ticket counter to check. Yep, that's it, that's the passenger train.

Adaptability is my middle name so I climb on. The floor and sides are wood, with a few big chunks missing from the sides. There're big timbers and poles and bundles of smaller wood on the floor of the car that are being hauled and lots of hammocks hanging from the rafters but not too many people. I sit down on a timber and wait and see what happens. The train pulls out of the station, then pulls back in, then pulls out, then back in. What the? I later realized that the first time was to pick up a car on the siding and the second to pick up the passengers who'd gotten off to eat lunch. There’s no food service on the train.

We pull out on our way finally. All the hammocks are taken. I'm just sitting on a log waiting, getting into things slowly. Fellow motions to me to take the hammock out of my pack as if he was clairvoyant and knew I had one in there. When I do take it out another guy says, "One dollar". "One dollar?", I humph back. He had me there for a minute. Could it be? Never know. "Play speak", somebody says. Of course. Well what more could you ask for? Cool breeze coming through the open doors of the boxcar, the hammock is swinging of its own accord, rocking to the motion of the train, and is a lot more comfortable than a hard wood seat.

After a while, they start rearanging the timbers, moving everybody around in the process, getting a few bundles set up so they stick halfway out the open door. Then at the appropriate place they frantically dump them out the door while the train is still moving – at best it gets up to 15mph. Two hours later, twenty 100 kilo (220 pound) sacks of salt are loaded on. After a while the sacks get moved to get at more lumber under them and that happened three times before they also got offloaded – no, not while the train was moving. I didn't check the other boxcars to see if they were also carrying freight, maybe it was only mine.

After about an hour of sitting in the dark (about 7PM) somebody got together the boxcar's tiny battery powered light. At first I was told the train would reach PP at 8, then told ten, but it actually arrived closer to eleven. Nearly nine hours to go 75 miles. It really didn't dawdle much, you know, spend forever on some forgotten siding, so its slowness was a little puzzling. Through most of the trip people were talking, laughing, carrying on and having a great old time, these people know how to have fun and they love their holidays.