Last week I ran the first of my Writing Through workshops for this year. Others have done theirs already, but this was my first, and it was held with students at Anjali House, where my programme first started six years ago. The theme this time was ‘Place’, as I mentioned in my last blog. And so it seemed fitting that I spend my first real free time since I’ve been here at one of my favourite places in the world, Wat Damnak. I know I’ve written about this place before, not only in blogs, but I also used it as the backdrop for one of the pivotal scenes in Out of the Ruins. But I can’t help writing about it. For me, it is one of the most peaceful, beautiful and fascinating places I have ever been. In some ways, it is my ‘safe place’. Just as I explored that term with my students, I have come to understand what it means to me and why this place is so special. Amidst the melee of traffic and noise and never-ending commerce of the Siem Reap streets, this large space provides sanctuary, both literally and figuratively. On its grounds is a primary school, a monastery, rows of stupas, a (dry) central lake with a spirit house in the middle, an NGO which teaches poor local woman to sew, the internationally respected Center for Khmer Studies and it’s two libraries (one of which is where I occasionally read to the younger students), all surrounded by mature trees and places to sit and think, or not think. Young monks stroll around the grounds, going about their daily work, with always time for a smile and — always in English — a ‘Hello. How are you?’
Once a year, it also is the home of the Giant Puppet Parade preparation. Again, I know I’ve written about that annual event in my blog before, but it never disappoints. For eleven years now, it has provided Siem Reap town with its own form of Mardi Gras, while giving the local NGO’s and their kids outlets for creativity and fun. The puppets never cease to amaze me, with their winking eyes, bowing heads, blinking lights. And the music during the parade, pure Khmer — blaring, drumming, singing, chimes, trumpets of the local Boy Scouts (yes, it’s true), and lots and lots of dancing.
So, my first day off was a study in contrast, moving from solitary contemplation to communal celebration. And what will today bring?Preparing for next week’s two workshops, one more as normal, and one new, advanced format for those first students who are still with me, all ending in Saturday night’s Big Event and the students’ presentations of their work and themselves. I’ll report back on that, but I’ll leave you with one of the poems from the past week….this one by Sokea, who learned a new word and a new concept in our discussions, and took it to heart:
by Sokea (18-years-old)
Refugee people escape from the war.
People try to run away to find safe place.
Some people die in the war,
Some people get hurt —
because some of them lost their family.
They have nothing to eat.
Some children are very thin.
They have only a big head and only bones.
Their eyes become bigger, bigger and frightened,
I wish that they live happy again.