Wednesday, February 5, 2014

It's About Time

It's been a couple of crazy weeks since my last post! I've been busy living, experiencing and touring, and I've only been able to grab a few minutes here and there to sit at the computer. There are at least a hundred ideas bouncing around in my head for things I'd like to write about, but before that happens, I promised myself I'd rise to a challenge that was offered to me by one of my readers. I've been given one word to write about - the word 'Time' - and what you are about to read is my interpretation of that word, and how it relates to me living in Cambodia.

When I was still working, my life was governed by a clock. I had to get up at a specific time to be at work at a specific time. I took my breaks and ate my lunch at a specific time. I got home at a specific time, ate dinner at a specific time. If I wanted to take a course, go to a movie, participate in a club, I had to watch the time and be on time. I wore a watch, had a clock in my car and one (or two) in most rooms of my house. They were all synchronized, and being late could be disastrous.

Now that we're retired, my life is much less dominated by clocks.  We still own them (one in nearly every room of our house), however their purpose has changed.  On days when we have appointments or commitments, they're around to keep me informed or on track. On days when our time is our own, I often forget to wear a watch, and  I am ruled by my body rhythms, and whatever task I get engrossed in. I sleep as long as I need, and eat when I feel hungry. The lengthening and shortening of the days make it difficult to tell exactly what time it is, and Daylight Savings Time throws me for a big loop twice a year. There is only one thing in our quiet little village that remains constant. It's a siren that goes off every Tuesday at 6:30 pm, as part of the drill for the volunteer fire brigade.  I honestly think if it weren't for that, it would be very easy for me to lose track of time altogether. 

This 'tour of duty' in Cambodia, we are working (volunteering) half-days and take a tuk-tuk out to Honour Village at noon. It requires us to be somewhat mindful of the time from Monday to Friday. Even so, I find I rely much less on clocks here than anywhere else, for the simple reason that in Cambodia we hardly see them anywhere.

Most places (restaurants, guesthouses, shops) don't have clocks on the wall, and there are no town clocks here that ring out the hour. In a country that is primarily Buddhist, there are no church bells within my earshot that chime, not even to announce services. If I were to ask someone here for the time, they would be more likely to check their cellphone than their watch. It's been my observation that most Cambodians don't wear watches.

We have no clock in our room and our travel alarm died a few days after we arrived. The only watch I brought along has a broken strap and is seven minutes slow, and I can't adjust the hands because the stem broke off several weeks ago. I haven't bothered to buy a replacement because a cheap one from the market would probably be a wasted expense, so I often go days without wearing my watch now. It hasn't been a problem in the least. If I'm in my room and need the exact time, I check my computer. If the computer is off, or I'm out somewhere, I've learned to tell the time by observing and listening to cues all around.

Damaged by sweating, moisture and Cambodian dust,
my watch is almost ready for the garbage.
It's not a good idea to bring a good watch here.

The windows in our guesthouse are poorly fitted and I can clearly hear street noises, which often wake me well before sunrise.  This city comes alive long before daylight.  Every morning without fail, a young man drives his moto out of the yard across the road and waits for hs wife beneath our window, idling the engine. It always stalls at least once, and makes a high pitched squealing cough each time he restarts it. Once his passenger is seated, he opens the throttle, revs the engine, and drives off.  The first time I watched this ritual fom our balcony, I noted the time.  Now when I lay awake in the dark, those noises let me know it's 5:00 am.

Because Siem Reap, Cambodia is only 13 degrees north of the equator, there is very little fluctuation in the time of sunrise and sunset throughout the entire year. During the months we're here (December through March), the sun rises at 6:15 am, plus or minus 15 minutes, and sets at 6:00 pm, plus or minus 15 minutes. If I lay very quietly and listen intently, I can always tell the exact moment of sunrise, because in the distance, the voice of the muezzin chants out the call to prayer at dawn from the mosque in the Muslim district. So when I hear that chant, I know  it's around 6:15 am.

The mosque in the Muslim district of Siem Reap.
About five percent of Cambodians are Muslim.

Every morning without fail, monks walk down the road past our guesthouse to collect their meal for the day. On their way, they stop at most doorways to give their blessing and receive alms. I am mesmerized by the sound of their chant, a monotone prayer in Pali, which seems to reverberate between the buildings. When I hear it, I know it's about 7:00 am.

A woman receiving blessings from a monk

We spend most mornings simply. We eat our breakfast, then spend some time reading or on our computers, catching up on emails or the news. We like to get some exercise by taking a long daily walk, stopping to buy carrots and cucumbers for our lunch. We've got our routine worked out fairly well, and when we return to the guesthouse on weekdays, it's nearly time to change into our volunteer T-shirts, gather up our gear and leave for Honour Village, which is around 12 km away. It's the one time of day we check the time on our watches or computer, but whether we leave a bit early or late is not critical.

Our tuk-tuk generally leaves between 11:45 am and noon (plus or minus a few minutes). Sometimes the driver is ready to go, and sometimes we have to wait a while to get one. Sometimes traffic slows us down along the way, and some days we breeze right through. The Honour Village children ride their bikes to school, and leave at 12:15 pm to make it on time for 1 pm classes. Even without a watch, it's easy to judge what time it is by noting where on the road we meet them. We wave and shout 'hellos' to one another as we pass. The closer to Honour Village we meet them, the closer it is to 12:15 pm.

Riding bikes to school

Once we arrive at Honour Village, Gordon heads to his 'workshop' and I head to the library to help out before my classes begin. Sometimes I go to the teacher's room to prepare lessons for my classes. I teach kindergarten to children under age five between 2 and 3 pm, and to the 'under sixes' between 3 and 4 pm. Some of the classrooms at Honour Village have clocks, and not all of them work, so I have to rely on my (unreliable) watch or listen for cues if I forget to put it on. Fortunately, I can always rely on the school bell for the correct time. It's rung at 10 minutes to the hour to signal that the next class begins soon, and once again on the hour, to mark the beginning of classes. When I'm at Honour Village, that bell alerts me that it's time to start and end my lessons.

The school bell is made of a ten inch length of cast iron pipe,
with a metal rod that hangs down inside. 
It makes a lovely clanging sound. 
When the teacher rings it, he starts off with a slow gong,
continuing faster and louder until he stops it suddenly.

It's a good thing we have that bell, because from the first day I arrived, the wall clock in the Kindergarten classroom never worked.  I kept telling myself I'd replace the battery, and I kept forgetting. One day, just as we were set to go home, we heard a loud bang and the tinkle of glass. A child had tossed a soccer ball in the kindergarten room, sending the clock crashing to the ground, smashing the face. After helping to clean up the mess, I rescued the shattered timepiece and took it home to see if I could get it working. Even though I straightened out the bent hands and tried inserting a new battery, it was hopeless. It would run for a few minutes, then stop. I finally gave it up for dead, and tossed the carcass into our garbage can, leaving the bin outside our room for the staff to empty. That night, one of the cleaners proudly showed off the clock which she'd salvaged. To this day, it ticks effortlessly in the front reception of our guesthouse. Go figure.

From Monday to Friday, two of the staff members go to school in the evenings to learn English. Rosa leaves at 3:45 pm and returns at 5:15 pm. Huy leaves at 5:45 pm and returns at 9:15 pm. Their classes are so important to them, they'd never miss one. I often find myself mentally noting time in the evening by their departures and arrivals. 

Rosa is the senior female staff member.
All three girls share in the cooking, cleaning and laundry.
I don't know how she finds the time to study!

Since we've been here, we've been to all sorts of parties...three Christmas parties, a New Years party, three 'going-away' parties, a wedding, and a Chinese New Year party. 

One of three Christmas parties that we attended..

Dancing at Cambodian wedding

One of several 'going away' parties
for our volunteers

Chinese New Year party in the countryside

Cambodians have many festivals and holidays that are different from our own, and they've adopted some of our western holidays as well. Despite their tragic past (or perhaps because of it) Cambodians always seem to be celebrating something or other. One thing for sure I do know about 'time' in Cambodia: 
No matter what time it is, it's always a good time to party.

1 comment:

  1. Why is it no surprise to me that you have risen to the challenge!!
    Bravo. Well done!!