Sralang Apsara – Let Me Introduce YouJanuary 10, 2007
I confess. After living in the country for almost two years, I really have committed myself to and fallen in love with Cambodia. But let us stand back and at least partially examine this emotion through the medium of that ubiquitous and unique Cambodian icon, the apsara, an entity that I love – in the sense that love is irrational. Apsaras are figures of both myth and reality, representing the ethereal beauty of Cambodia. They do not represent the vast majority of the population who get on with their grueling, precarious lives, smiling and making the most of it, until it is shattered by sickness – either their own or of a loved one.
So the reason I’ll never leave Cambodia is dancing. There are many kinds in addition to apsara: various tribal minorities, Chinese, Muslim, mid- twentieth century, yet all without exception are so ineffably graceful, with coy, bashful performers and touching story-lines. Even the girls with bodies and faces that aren’t all that, turn into goddesses, and the boys are unfeasibly cute too. Another point that I note is that some of the tribal and folk dances carry on for hours with thumping, repetitive, mesmerising percussion, such as dancing in a circle around a fire and the Trot, yet unlike in Africa or Latin America where this would whoop up into a sexualized frenzy, here they remain slow and graceful; in the Trot, apart from the hobby hoss and his adversary doing ritual battle, the other participants make the same minimal rhythmic movements without moving from the spot including two girls with long talons who just wave their hands in apsara motions up and down for an hour. Magnificent.
There may be another reason that I’ll not leave. Western society is too grey and mushy for me. In Cambodia you live in the midst of both extreme beauty and extreme ugliness (socially and morally). You feel it; it makes you alive unless you don’t want to be and stay in the sanctuary of the bar.
My serious New Year resolution is to focus in 2007 more fully on my primary reason for being here. In 2006, everything went very well for me. I established myself in a privileged job, earning a respectable reputation and making useful contacts. After a period of putting out feelers I also settled on a voluntary project with which to commit myself, gradually building up my relationship with the orphanage. Yes, there was one disappointment on the personal front; I still miss and think I still love my erstwhile girlfriend, but I have to accept that with her being so deeply conditioned to steal from me at every opportunity I have to concede defeat. I’m deeply sorry for her but, er, my heart will go on.
Specifically, my intention is to develop a curriculum to teach the orphanage kids more systematically, and have a website developed for the project. I’ve already facilitated a lot of donations by talking with tourists watching the children perform, and everyone I’ve persuaded to see them just once has fallen in love with them. A website would result in further support although I have to think creatively how to do so without obviously asking for donations – the director has opted to refrain from registering the project as an official charity to prevent the vultures swooping and taking a large cut in bribes. For all that, I think that due to its inherent qualities, the project will grow and prosper with or without my contributions, but there are many other orphanages buried away, and I hope that if I have the time and opportunity I will make further connections. In 2007, I will go both deeper and broader.
Thus may I attempt to bridge the contradiction of Cambodia, a contradiction I perceive myself as having internalised. My apsaras are not of the elite, they are three little girls from a desperately poor village who have all lost both parents to AIDS. The next generation of apsaras include a girl who lost both parents to AIDS and a sister to a landmine, and a wee girl rescued from the karaoke parlour. I wouldn’t surprise me if 2007 sees me buy, via the orphanage, my first human being and transform someone’s hell into a heaven. I think 2007 will be an interesting year.