The days of my village life are winding down and it’s become apparent that the rest of the lengthy editorials I once envisioned I’d write you will never come to full fruition – half because of the innervating heat and half because of the innervating heat. I can, however, offer you these curtailed travesties: abridged looks at some of the fundamental parts of Cambodian life which at one point were wholly preposterous but now seem as routine as rice.
“Drop by drop fills the bucket.” – Khmer proverb
For household water (as opposed to agricultural), most rural communities rely heavily on rain water collection or the drilling of wells. For rain water collection, each home has its own jury-rigged system of PVC piping, metal sheeting, and giant cement cisterns, the assembly of which is often comical its complexity. Often families will designate separate cisterns for different uses – a clean, covered cistern near the kitchen for cooking water or an uncovered one near the animal pens for utilitarian purposes, for instance. When the rains wane and the cisterns run low, some families have wells from which they can draw, though this water sometimes goes without testing for harmful contaminants. Additionally, some folks make a living by towing pond water throughout the commune and pumping it into family cisterns. The lotus pond at our pagoda is a popular filling station for such ventures. While many families will drink untreated rain or pond water, touting its natural and fresh qualities, some families will use water filters for their drinking water or ensure that it’s boiled before consumption or steeped with some tea leaves. Alternatively, families can subscribe to having large blue plastic tanks of drinking water routinely delivered to their homes or they can buy pack of bottled water (12 bottles for about $0.50), although the bottling sources of these options cannot always be trusted as sanitary. While open defecation in surrounding agricultural fields still occurs, many households have a low-set latrine (“squatty potty”) which drains into an underground tank to be emptied by a large, odiferous truck every several years. Most of those latrines also have a second, corner drain for supposedly harmless run-off from bathing which drains into the street or adjacent water sources. In very rural situations, families bathe using collected rain water or nearby ponds. Regardless of whether our shower water comes from a cement cistern or a pond, though, we all use small buckets with which to pour the ant/spider/small fish-filled and inexplicably frigid water over our sweaty heads.
“Just leave that anywhere.” – Step-father Bill whenever we would spill or drop something, also the Cambodian philosophy for 99% of garbage
The general formula for waste and trash control at home is to keep several small waste baskets about the property for the rubbish for which you absolutely can find no other purpose. Compostables can be fed to fowl and livestock, most small containers can be up-cycled for kitchen or workshop storage, and old textiles live out their lives as all-purpose cloths until the end of their raggedy days. The problem of toilet paper is “solved” by the practice of wiping with one’s hand. Yeah. The remaining rubbish – theoretically – is neatly piled and burned on the front lawn, hopefully in coordination with the neighbors to stagger burning days and avoid smoking-out the entire street. This practice is often coupled with using a stiff bamboo broom to groom the front of one’s home of fallen leaves and other peoples’ litter by sweeping it into the fire. Many schools and public buildings have large cement basins for the purpose of rubbish cremation which, in between burning, are overflowing with Styrofoam food containers, straws, and plastic packaging. Used feminine products have to be disposed of in the same (very public, very humiliating) way and quickly before roving dogs come sniffing. Because there is always a fire going somewhere in the neighborhood, the rate of plastic-smoke inhalation is constant. When it comes to undefined public spaces, the general impulse here is not to seek out a trash bin but to toss the garbage on the ground with the expectation that a peckish chicken or scavenging dog will gnaw it up or that the next rain will wash it away. This results in streets and pagodas and otherwise green spaces being constantly lined in refuse. In most restaurants, used napkins and other disposables are dropped below the table as the proprietors will sweep everything up upon closing. For recyclables, they can be redeemed for cash at a processing plant of which there are often a few in a province. Most villages will have a handful of designated aunties and/or uncles who buy up everyone’s cardboard, plastic, cans, or glass and then take in their bounty for compensation.
Home Sweet Home
Basic Cambodian homes are simple, wooden, one-to-two room houses which closely resemble the likeness of a house drawn by a four-year old. Families often improve their homes gradually over many years which serves to improve the family’s comfort and social status. Improvements tend to happen in a standard step-wise fashion. Single-story wooden homes can be elevated on stilts and columns which bolsters home-security and prevents the water and/or pest infiltration with which life on the ground is fraught. A lot of family time and entertainment of guests then takes place in the shade below the house where it stays cool. Given that upholstered furniture would be a flea and fungus-ridden nightmare in this climate, wooden furniture reigns supreme with special value placed on stout wooden platforms resembling a bed-frame. These are the little stages atop which most socialization takes place. Valuables are kept upstairs in various glass cabinets and/or locked chests and the enclosed spaces stays so hot most days that families don’t venture upstairs until bedtime. From there, many families will slowly lay down cement, patch-by-patch in front of and around the house. That lower story can eventually be laid with nice cold tile and enclosed with cement or stone walls. To keep the front yard cool, families build the most extreme awnings, sometimes stretching all the way to the street. Most homes and businesses (which often occupy the same building) are plastered in canvas banners and signs courtesy of the major names in beer, agriculture, telecommunications, and various NGO campaigns. Towering, brightly painted stone manses do exist in the village, often interspersed amid neighboring wooden homes of less structural integrity. Fences are another issue of security and pride. Despite the compact, communal nature of rural life, the fear of intruders and ne’er-do-wells runs deep. Khmer families prefer to have at least one person at home at all times to “guard”. If the house has to be un-personed for any period of time, affluent families roll the gate closed, lock it up, and put their faith in the broken glass they’ve laid in the tops of their stone walls.
What blanks do you draw when trying to picture daily life here, Grandpa? I’ve got the following in the canon: transportation, telecommunications, cattle, privacy, gender norms, drinking, family dynamics, and dress code/fashion. Let me know what I’m forgetting. It’s all so normal, now.
Love you all the time,