Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A party

Last week Lou and I went to a party at our Khmer teacher Sokha's house. He and his wife were celebrating the first birthday of their son, Sothearos, a name from Sanskrit meaning "dew." It's also the name of a major boulevard in Phnom Penh, after some king or other. Sokha told us that it's very unusual for ordinary Cambodians to give a child such a grand name, as it's thought to be bad luck. He and his wife, however, decided to buck tradition. I'm not entirely sure of it, but I surmise that in Western terms, Sothearos falls somewhere between William and Charlemagne for grandeur and eccentricity. Not positively outlandish, but distinctly regal.

The party was a great chance to infiltrate a real, actual Khmer home---an opportunity that comes along with surprising rarity. Just traveling to Sokha's house demonstrated to us how much of Phnom Penh is hidden from us. Lou and I drove out to a spot near the airport, where Sokha met us on his motorbike. He led us along a series of unlit, rutted dirt alleys along the abandoned train tracks to his house, which seems to be part of the housing development that has exploded in the capital in recent years. Many of the houses seemed new or even half-built, although it was difficult to tell in the dark, especially as I was concentrating on negotiating protruding boulders, mud puddles, and hardened tire tracks with my extremely inadequate headlight (at low speeds it hardly works at all, but flares up when I rev the engine). The houses in this part of the city open onto undeveloped land that must have been a railway easement in the past. They say that Cambodia is restarting its rail lines, setting up an inevitable land conflict with these homeowners and merchants---but that's for another post.

Lou and I were the only Westerners at the party, and were given the red carpet treatment. That meant (1) sitting at a table groaning with grilled meat and pungent sauces, and (2) posing for photos with every single person at the party, whether or not we had had the chance to speak with them at all. The guests seemed to take it as a prestigious thing to have barangs (foreigners) at the birthday party, and wanted to commemorate the occasion. I've never really been a guest of honor, especially in such an unearned way, but I can't say I didn't enjoy playing the celebrity for an evening. Of course, I may have misinterpreted the whole thing. I was undeniably a bit of a physical standout at the party, towering over everyone there, so the shutterbugs may have simply been documenting an interesting specimen.

Here are some photos, as well as a very short video of Sokha's niece dancing. Her hand gestures are very typical. People dance the way she does in the video by the hour at weddings.


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