Sunday, 25 March 2012

Cambodia - Sok sobai tay?

It's more than 10,000 miles (or just less than 17,000 km) from Bridgetown, Barbados to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia - the next place I've chosen to blog about.

My own experience of Cambodia
My choice of Cambodia is an unusual one, in the sense that it's a place I've actually been to a couple of times. With the exception of the Netherlands and Veneto, most of the places I've blogged about thus far, are places I have never visited and, in many cases, places I may never get the opportunity to visit. A couple of them, eg. Hong Kong and Iceland, are places that I've visited subsequent to my blogging about them, as I felt so inspired by everything I'd read and seen.

I found Cambodia to be incredibly beautiful and welcoming and it's a country I feel strongly about.  I would love to see Cambodia prosper and move on from the troubles of its recent past.

The legacy of the Killing Fields

Khmer Gris at Angkor
It's impossible to do any research into Cambodia without coming across texts, movies and references to the terrible period of suffering under the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. In previous blogs, I've talked a little bit about 'national traumas', like the famine in Ireland, the loss of religious identity in Mongolia or the AIDS epidemic in Lesotho. Attempts by the Khmer Rouge to turn Cambodia (or Kampuchea) into an agrarian socialist society is very much part of Cambodia's national trauma.

After travelling to Cambodia, I became a bit obsessed about this period in the country's history and I've already read quite a few books and eye-witness accounts of life under the Khmer Regime. One of my favourite's was Pin Yathay's Stay Alive, My Son - a very moving account of displacement and survival. I've also watched Roland Joffe's 1984 movie The Killing Fields, but I would like to watch it again, as I've actually visited Cambodia since I saw the movie.

I bought a copy of Loung Eng's First they Killed my Father when I was last in Phnom Penh in 2007. I wasn't ready to read it then, so it's sat on my bookshelf for 5 years and I'm ready to read it now. I've also bought a copy of River of Time by Jon Swain, the journalist portrayed in The Killing Fields.. I've tried, in vain, to find modern Cambodian literature available in an English-language translation. So if anyone knows of anything, I'd be interested in hearing about this.

The Splendor of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, taken in 2004
I guess the flip side to Cambodia's 'dark history' under the Khmer Rouge is the resurgence of interest in the remains of the Cambodian (Khmer) temples at Angkor, just outside the modern-day town of Siem Reap. My first trip to Cambodia was in 2004, crossing the border from Thailand, I spent three days being driven around Angkor, exploring the various temples that are scattered around the Cambodian jungle.

It really is a wonderful place and I returned in 2007 with my Kalmyk/Russian partner. It's being overrun by tourists though, so I don't think I'll return, as I've had my chance to visit Angkor and the temples now have more visitors than they can handle.

Again, it's going to be challenge to get beyond the legacies of the Angkor and the Khmer Rouge, so I can find out even more about Cambodia. As usual, I want to read, watch movies, cook a Khmer dish and listen to Khmer music.

Spotify and Khmer play lists
Heaven and Earth
Although I registered on Spotify several years ago, I've never been able to make it work properly until now. I've got a 30-day trial of their Premium account, which allows me to listen to music on my iPhone and I want to see how this works for my blog research, amongst other things. So far, so good - as I've been writing this blog, I've been listening to an album called Khmer Passages: Songs for Cycles of Cambodian Life as well as Dengue Fever's album Venus on Earth. Interestingly there are Cambodian music playlists on Spotify as well, so I intend to absorb as much Khmer music as I can over the next month or so!

A fleeting obsession with Photoshop

Also, because I've been in Cambodia, I have my own photos, which I'm using to illustrate this current blog post. I'm a big fan of the Flickr community and I like to highlight some of the wonderful images that Flickr members have shared with the world. But I'm also quite a keen (amateur) photographer. I have relatively few photos from Cambodia, as I was there in my pre-digital camera days. My Cambodian photos, as you may have already guessed, reflect a period when I was obsessed with Photoshop!

Anyway, I hope you enjoy these images and my future blog posts about Cambodia.

Image credits:

All images in the current blog post were taken by me. Please feel free to reuse them with the Creative Commons license:

- Attribution (especially to this blog)

- Share Alike

- Non-commercial

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Barbados - Large up wunna self!

The time has come to say goodbye to Barbados.  As usual, my blogging has left me with a burning desire to visit the places I've been blogging about - actually, a friend of mine is going to Barbados in the next couple of weeks, so I'll have to experience the island vicariously for now. 

A summary of the themes

It's been a great learning journey and, I must say, I've been left with a very favourable impression of Barbados - a small island nation that has managed to forge a respectable place for itself in the 21st century world.  During the past (almost) two months, I've learned about the geography and history of the island.  I've learned about Barbados' national 'religion' - cricket - and how the West Indies cricket team dominated the sport during the 1970's and 80's.  I learned about the darker side of Barbados' history, about the Red Legs and the 'ethnic cleansing' of Ireland.  I also learned about Barbados' strong historical links with Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations.  I learned how to cook the Bajan national dish, Cou Cou and Fried Fish and I read novels by two of the countries' most famous writers, George Lamming and Glenville Lovell. 

Tools for research

I read three books as part of my research for this blog:

To Hell or Barbados: The ethnic cleansing of Ireland by Sean O'Callaghan
In the Castle of my Skin by George Lamming
Song of Night by Glenville Lovell

I also watched three movies/documentaries related to Barbados:

The Tamarind Seed - (1974), starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, is partly set on Barbados and features scenes shot on the island.
Fire in Babylon (2011) is a really inspiring documentary about the West Indies cricket team.
Legends of Cricket - West Indies (2008) is a documentary series covering world cricketers

Research materials

I try to use the Insight Guides as much as possible when I'm researching for my blog.  I can usually pick up older copies fairly cheaply on Amazon and I find that they have a lot of interesting article and provide a good background to the societies I'm blogging about.  I was also lucky enough to come across a copy of The Nation - Barbados' national newspaper - in a newsagents on the Uxbridge Road.  I've used Wikipedia quite a lot and various other sources around the Net, to verify the information I've been blogging about.

And, of course, whilst I've been blogging, I've been listening to lots of great Calypso and Soca music. Barbados is renowned for its Crop Over Festival in late summer, where the Calypso wordsmiths compete to win the title of 'People's Monarch' or 'Pic-o-the-Crop'.  I hadn't realised how witty and political Calypso music is and I look forward to finding out more about Calypso in future.  For now, I'm going to share a YouTube video with you, from one of Barbados' best female groups Square One - this track is called 'Controller' and I hope that it will have you, like me, jumping all over the dance floor like a grasshopper!

Other themes

As usual there were themes I just touched on during my research, that I didn't really have time to explore in greater detail.  These were:

The saints that Barbados' parishes are named after
Coral Reefs
The Sugar Trade
The Taino people
The world's most densely populated places
Persecution of the Methodists
The Monmouth rebellion
Bajans and the building of the Panama canal
Marcus Garvey and the Rastafarian movement
The world's greatest Wreck Dives

Dinner Party Trivia

And for those of you who are regular readers, here are some quirky facts about Barbados that you can use to impress people at your next dinner party!

The original name for Barbados was Ichirouganaim which means 'red land with white teeth'
Barbadian coins are struck at the Royal Canadian mint
Bridgetown is twinned with the London Borough of Hackney
Reading, in Berkshire, has the largest Bajan community outside the Caribbean
The English singer, Des'ree is of Bajan heritage
Barbados is believed to be the only place outside the US that George Washington visited
There are no poisonous snakes or spiders on Barbados
Barbados has the third oldest parliament in the Americas (set up in 1639) - after Virginia and Bermuda
The Carib word for rainbow literally translates as 'God's plume of feathers'
The original inhabitants of the Caribbean called Europeans 'misshapen enemy' because of their clothing and armour
The first synagogue in the Americas was founded in Bridgetown in 1654
There are over 140 religious denominations in Barbados and it's reputed to have the highest concentration of churches per square mile than any other place on earth
Between 18,000 and 20,000 Bajans died in a cholera epidemic in the 1850's
Bridgetown's main square used to be called 'Trafalgar Square' and predates London's Trafalgar Square - it was renamed National Heroes Square in 1999.
The tallest building in Barbados is 11 storeys high.
Barbados still has the death penalty on its law books - it was last used in 1983.
Malibu is produced in Barbados, although it originates on the Dutch island of Curaçao
The word 'rum' comes from 'rumbullion' which is an archaic word for a brawl!

The Beauty of Barbados

Of course, no blog about Barbados would be complete without paying homage to the island's most famous pop star, Rihanna who was born in the parish of St Michael's in 1988.  I'm not a die-hard fan, but I do

I'm going to leave you with one of my favourite Rihanna tracks, We Found Love (featuring Calvin Harris) again from Youtube.  The video was shot in County Down, Northern Ireland and caused some controversy when a local farmer objected to the rather 'saucy' scenes that were being acted out in his field!  Enjoy and next time, I'll be blogging about C . . .

Image credits:

The image of the book cover and newspaper were taken by me.

The videos are from YouTube

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Barbados - Laying out your clothes to dry

As part of my research for this blog, I read two novels by Bajan writers. The first, In the Castle of my Skin (1953) by George Lamming is a Bajan classic and is, no doubt, a well-established favourite on post-colonial studies reading lists the world over. The second, Song of Night (1998) by Glenville Lovell is a more modern novel, which is set in an independent Barbados, providing an interesting balance to Lamming's world.

Characters in a changing world

In the Castle of my Skin is a really important book and a record of Barbados during a period of great change for the country.  I'm sure much of the story is autobiographical and reflects Lamming's own experiences, as a young man growing up on 'the Rock'.  It's quite a heavy read, but the language is wonderfully poetic and the 'events' of the book have an almost surreal or magical quality to them.  It deals with a time of great change and political upheaval for Barbados, as the white ruling class struggled to maintain their position in an increasingly politicised society.  The book contains mixed feelings about the demise of the Empire and British control of the island.  One really powerful scene describes how a mob are about to attack and kill the white landowner, but they don't have the support of ordinary people and are held back from violence by their leader, Mr Slime.

In Song of Night, Barbados has already been through the big political changes and is facing a different kind of change, as the island's economy shifts from one based on sugar production to one based on tourism.  The changing world of Lovell's book is every bit as disconcerting as that of Lamming's and the main characters, Cyan (or Night) and Breeze, find themselves corrupted by the easy money that can be earned from (mostly US and Canadian) tourists who come to Barbados looking for exotic and sensual pleasures. 

Sense of displacement

Book covers

In both novels, the main characters also experience change in their personal circumstances and a sense of displacement or removal from the society they were born into.  In Lamming's novel, the narrator is offered an opportunity to move upwards, in terms of social class, by going to Trinidad to become an English teacher.  Even though he tries to maintain his relationship with his childhood friends and life in the village, the villagers reject him, as they recognise that he needs to move out of their world and that this is the best thing for him to do.

In Lovell's novel, it's almost the complete opposite - when Cyan's father is convicted of murder and hanged, she finds herself ostracised by the people around her and excluded from the village society that is around her.  Being as stubborn as she is, she refuses to move from the village and backs into a corner, reacting violently to the slightest provocation.  She also loses her sense of morality and does things she would never have dreamed of when her father was alive. 

The role of women in the novels

Woman in Barbados by Shardalow
Perhaps it's not surprising that the older novel, In the Castle of my Skin has a male narrator, whereas Song of Night is narrated, almost exclusively, from a female perspective.  When I was researching  Invasion of the Body Snatchers for my blog posts about Wisconsin, I noticed a similar pattern in regards to the movies that were based on the book, ie. the narrator changed from the male protagonist of the 1950's (Kevin McCarthy) to the female protagonist (Nicole Kidman) of the 2007 film version.  I wonder if this is a general trend across world literature?

Of course, there are women in Lamming's novel - the narrator's mother is an incredibly powerful character, who scares and confuses him, as she prepares his final Bajan meal before he leaves for Trinidad.  The power of white female sexuality is also felt in the novel, when the young English woman who is staying at the Landlord's house accuses some of the local boys of molesting her, to cover up the fact that she been out after dark meeting a sailor. 

Song of Night explores the world of Bajan women and Cyan (or Night) is one of the strongest female characters I've ever come across.  In Lovell's novel, the women recognise that they are in a man's world and do everything they can to assert their place in it.  Cyan takes control of her own destiny and just as quickly loses control of her life, as she refuses to listen to the advice of the women around her.  She has an incredibly strained relationship with her mother and there is a lot of tension with the other women in her life as well. 

I really loved the way that Lamming summed up the roles of men and women in Bajan society:

'The men at cricket. The children at hide and seek. The women laying out their starched clothes to dry.' 

Bajan boys on the beach by Shardalow
Darkness and Rain

Cyan is also known as 'Night' and darkness/the night is an important theme in Lovell's novel.  Cyan feels most comfortable at night and the novel opens with the scene of fireflies descending on her garden and filling her with comfort and joy.  In the Castle of my Skin opens with a rain storm on the narrator's ninth birthday.  Rain and darkness are persistent themes throughout both novels and it's an interesting contrast to the image of Barbados that we might see in tourist brochures, ie. full of light and sunshine.  Like many societies that look relaxed and happy on the surface, I guess Barbados also has a dark side?

A denial of race?

I found a great contrast in the role that race plays in both novels.  Lamming's Barbados is a society that is strictly organised along lines of race.  At the top of the social pile is the White plantation class, next down the growing black middle-class, overseers and administrators - at the bottom is the majority, who Lamming describes as 'my people'; patronised by the white plantation owners, who think that they live in some kind of idyllic native paradise; despised by the growing black middle-class as backward and powerless.  In Lamming's novel, the teachers deny that slavery was ever practised in Barbados, which seems like a terrible denial of the nation's past.

The role of race in Lovell's novel is a lot more complicated.  Cyan becomes friends with a black woman called Koko, who came to live on Barbados from the US and, in her own way, also idealises Barbados as a place where she can be fully respected, despite the colour of her skin.  Koko describes the racism she experienced in the US and tries to inspire Cyan with faith in Barbados as a more egalitarian society.  But Cyan doesn't feel it.  The issue isn't so much about race for her, as the general prejudice the villagers have towards her because of actions of her father.  For Cyan, the colour of her skin is complicated by the fact that, just as it attracts prejudice and snide remarks from the other, lighter-skinned islanders, the darkness of her skin equally attracts the attention of the white touristmen - her skin colour becomes something exotic and worth paying for.  The racial problems of the US are not something she can really relate to.

In Lamming's novel as well, one of the narrators childhood friends, Trumper, goes to work in the US and comes back radicalised and inspired by a sense of Black Pride, that people on the island find hard to understand, as though he'd come back speaking a foreign language. 

Trinidad and St Lucia

It's interesting to note the references to other neighbouring islands in both novels.  When the narrator of In the Castle of my Skin is getting ready to move to Trinidad, he gets lots of advice from neighbours and people who've been there, telling him how terrible life in Trinidad is.  Although they have a similar culture to Barbados, the Bajan characters look down their nose at life in Trinidad and see it as a corrupt version of their own culture.  As the narrator's mother puts it:

Trinidad is a nice place - but fire, fire down there

Bajan Siesta by Shardalow
St Lucia doesn't fare much better, in Song of Night.  Cyan's mother was born in the island and her mother's foreign origin is another reason why Cyan and her sister have little support from their neighbours and society, after her father is hanged.  Cyan takes no interest in her mother's culture and seems to agree with the other Bajan characters that a lot of her mother's faults stem from the fact that she was born elsewhere.  Again, St Lucia is seen as a corrupt version of Barbados.  This reminds me of any number of countries I've lived in, where neighbouring countries are often viewed with distrust and there is a general denial of the cultural commonalities that don't necessarily end at the political border!   

The skill of suspense

I enjoyed reading both novels although, perhaps due to age, In the Castle of my Skin is a much more involved read, suited to academic study.  If you want an easy way into to Bajan literature, I'd highly recommend Lovell's Song of Night - it's a beautiful story, incredibly well-written and Lovell is a master of suspense - we know from the outset that Cyan has done something wrong, but her crime isn't revealed until the very end of the novel.  I don't think the novel is widely available in the UK, but I managed to have a copy shipped over from the US and there are several US sellers on Amazon that have the novel in stock. 

Image credits:

The image of the book covers was taken by me - the cover of Song of Night is from a painting called Paradise of Anubis by Bajan artist David Gall.  David now lectures at the University of North Carolina. 

For this blog post I wanted to highlight images of Barbados that were taken by flickr member Shardalow - you can see more of Shardalow's images on their flickrstream.  Thanks for sharing these with us using the Creative Commons license.