Anth in Phnom Penh

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Field Notes Part 2

It’s a Friday and I am out in Kandal again. The rice paddy we are in is very well irrigated meaning that I am ankle deep in mud and when I squat to count seedlings my bum gets wet. To make matters worse, this farmer has thrown in excess of 30 kgs of seed on half a hectare of land. Consequently, I am counting at least 900 to 1000 seedlings in each square. A farmer ambles along and stops to chat. He is barefoot, wearing three quarter length khaki pants, a ripped shirt, kramar around his neck and an army camouflage cap. He seems very taken by me and is constantly looking at me whilst chatting with Vichet about what we are doing. When he realises I speak some Khmer he comes over and asks me how old I am and whether I am married. I tell him and he smiles broadly, gold teeth flashing. “I am 36” he informs me, and then “you are very white”. I smile unsure of whether to say thank you or not, instead I say nothing and return to my seedlings. After a minute two more of staring the farmer goes on his way.

Back in the village I need to go to the bathroom. The village chief’s wife escorts me through the dirt laneways, past barking dogs to what is probably the only bathroom in the village. It is a squat toilet, with a bucket of water in the pitch dark. I am thankful, this is immeasurably better than the alternative: careful use of a sarong in the field. Afterwards I am kindly led as show-and-tell to a group of villagers who are sitting under one of the bigger houses. They sit me down on the slat bed and an elderly women scoots over to kneel right in front of me. Her hair is shaved, she flashes a toothless smile at me. I am not quite prepared for the attention and the onslaught of Khmer that comes next.

In a very friendly way, she proceeds to inspect every inch of me; her bony dark hands touching and prodding, all the while commentating for everybody’s benefit.

“So white”

“Very hairy arms”

“Is this silver? How much did it cost?”

I blush a lot and attempt to answer. There is a lot of discussion and laughter, most of which is entirely incomprehensible to me. I cover the key questions and explain that I am 26, and no, I am not married yet (in Khmer this statement is not correct unless you say “yet” at the end). She fingers my poly-cotton shirt and tells everyone it is silk.

“from France?”

I tell her that I am Australian and that my shirt is Australian too (although made in China would probably be closer to the truth).

“You look French”

“I’m Australian”

She remains unconvinced and defiantly says “French; their shirts the same”

Rather than argue I decide it is time to find Vichet and Chandra. I “chum riep” my way out of there.

Vichet is interviewing a farmer under her house on the other side of the village. The whole family is around, with the children playing in the yard. She tells us that they have had their rice seed for 2 years. They bought it from another farmer as it was known to be good seed. I am distracted by her youngest child who is toddling about wearing a yellow singlet and a smile. She is munching on a piece of corn and squatting in the dirt. As I look at her thinking how cute she is she takes a crap; with no underwear or nappy it mostly falls to the ground and mingles with the dirt. Later on, our interview concluded, her father scoops the baby up, hand on her bottom and places her on his lap. He dangles her proudly. I give thanks that I am in a country where women and men do not shake hands.

A chum riep greeting later we are on the road and on our way back to Phnom Penh. This white, hairy armed, city girl is rather tired. We enter the outskirts and are hit with the offensive of Friday peak hour traffic. Streams of young women piled on trailers towed by motos flow out of the city away from the garment factories, towards their families in the Provinces. I go home, wash the mud and dirt of Kandal off and then head towards my little make-shift family for an after work drink at the extremely un-Provincial Foreign Correspondents Club.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ploughing in Snuol Village this morning

Snoul Village, Takeo

Monday, August 08, 2005

Field Notes Part 1

We cruise into Takeo in our shiny, white landcruiser at 9.30am and stop for a brief meeting at our Provincial head office with Phal the Takeo Coordinator. Half an hour later we are back on the road with one ute, one landcruiser and six people (including two drivers) off to Sam Rauon village. Once in the village we are invited to sit on a wooden slat bed under the house of the key village member involved in the project. Phal introduces me, explains what I am doing and asks if there are any questions. The family smile and say no, they have already established what they want to know. Phal explains to me that they asked the most pressing question on arrival, as I was getting out of the car. This was ofcourse: “Is she married?”. We get down to business.

This is the first in a series of visits I am undertaking through the project areas in south-east of Cambodia. The aim is to look at the quality of rice seed used by everyday farmers. To do this, we are collecting small samples of seed and also conducting some field tests if the farmer has planted her/his seed recently. We are now in rainy season, and true to form it starts to bucket down soon after I settle on the wooden slats. But the downpour only lasts ten minutes. It’s raining, but not enough. The past five years have been characterised by severe drought after severe drought. This has made the already difficult life of the Khmer farmer even more desperate, and in Takeo it is even worse than in other areas of the country. Currently farmers in Takeo are faced with the gamble of planting now and hoping enough rain falls or waiting until the season really sets in and hoping it holds out. This is a risk that involves extremely high stakes. I survey the palm lined paddy fields and wooden stilt houses; it looks peaceful and picturesque, but there are some very harsh realities that underlie this panorama.

One of the rice paddies we were working in.

I ask the family questions about their rice seed and their farm. They happily answer. This family have had their seed for 20 years. Each year they save some of their harvest, store it for 9 months, and then clean and dry it ready to plant into the earth again. Vichet and I go out into their field and place down our metal rod 0.25m by 0.25m squares. I squat on my haunches and slowly count the amount of rice plants in my square. I ask Vichet how to say “working under the hot sun” in Khmer. He laughs and tells me. For eighty percent of Cambodians this is just life, but for this pasty faced, white girl these conditions are somewhat novel.

Vichet, my counterpart, working under the hot Cambodian sun.

close-up of my counting square

Later that evening I talk with Phal about his perceptions of agricultural practices over the past 20 years. He tells me that less people are transplanting (growing rice in a nursery and then planting in the field once the seedlings are established) as costs have risen so much and labour is too expensive. This is compounded by the not insignificant flow of young women out of rural villages and into outer areas of Phnom Penh and Kandal to work in huge textile factories. This has reduced available family labour for farmers who just do not have the money to hire help. This has real ramifications for the yield that farmers get on their crops and the amount of food they have to feed their families.

After the morning in Sam Rouen we head to a village further north. I ask Chandra, our driver, how far it is. He informs me that it is 16km.
“Oh, so if we are meeting Mar Ouen there at 2pm we don’t need to leave for half an hour?”
Chandra shakes his head. The road is bad and it will take 40 minutes. We need to leave straight away. There has been a significant improvement in the roads through Cambodia, even in a year, and definitely since I first came here in 2001. However, the smooth, mud free, bitumen expanses tend to only be found on very major routes. Takeo to Kompong Thnal is definitely not one of these. The bad road is bad due to some serious mud, creating a majorly churned up, treacherous surface. I learn how to say the car is “bouncing all over the place” in Khmer, which sounds something like the English word “roulette”. It’s certainly a gamble whether we are going to make it to this village without getting bogged or overturning the vehicle. We make it, and I crack everyone up by using the roulette word incorrectly and saying the “road was bouncing all over the place”. Surely it is a matter of perspective?