Snippets: More Socks, a Birthday, an Otter and a Referendum

Dear Dad & Russ,

Last week I received a lovely parcel of nylon socks and English toffee from Aunt Clara and Uncle Russ, along with a Christmas card enclosed in the parcel. The folks mailed this parcel from Saskatoon last November 23, hoping it would reach me in time for Christmas. However, receiving it in the middle of February was just like having Christmas all over again. The toffee was delicious and the socks are exactly the kind you have been sending. I suspect liaison between Ottawa and Saskatoon took place before they sent the parcel. I wrote to them as soon as the parcel arrived, thanking them for it.

Saturday was a big day here in Phnom Penh. It seems that this time of year is Buddha’s birthday (if I’m not mistaken) so for the past three days, the entire population has been occupied with chasing evil spirits out of the city. Well, what fun! Saturday afternoon we were all sitting in the sidewalk cafe outside the hotel when we heard the weirdest noise imaginable coming down the street. It turned out to be a big parade, complete with flags, burning incense, banners, colourful costumes, floats and bands. The bands (and I use the term here in its loosest sense) were composed of only four instruments, with many people playing all of them. These instruments were: drums, gongs, cymbals and flutes (of the snake-charming variety). Well, honestly! What a racket!! All you could hear was “boom-boom, clang-clang, crash-crash” and the odd little “tweet-tweet” thrown in for good measure. My, but it was a colourful spectacle to see! The costumes were indescribable (as was the music!) and the whole thing was miles long. Some of the highlights of the parade were great long dragons (about half a block long) with heads made of paper machĂ© and bodies of red and yellow silk, the whole thing being supported and operated by dozens of wee men underneath. And, of course, there were Buddhas of every size and shape imaginable being carried on golden chairs covered with burning incense (quite pleasant) and flowers, to say nothing of various types of food in case Buddha got hungry. One thing I know I shall never forget about this parade were the men with great long spears stuck right through their cheeks and out their mouths!

Like this…

The other end of the spears were supported by two or three little men who didn’t take too much care in keeping the spears steady. Another man had a short spike driven through his cheek from which hung some sort of religious banner. It was all quite weird and fantastic and so very, very oriental.

This parade started on Saturday and to the best of my knowledge it is still wandering about the city, because for the past three days and nights, everywhere you go you seem to be running into it! I suppose it does take quite a long time to clear a city of evil spirits, but I’m not sure. There has also been a great deal of chanting going on all over the place, right under my hotel room window in particular. This morning at 7 a.m. I was jolted awake by the siren on top of the Post Office going full blast for about five minutes straight. Then the dogs started to bark and howl, roosters started to crow, babies started to cry, children started to yell and people started singing and chanting all sorts of weird little tunes. What a madhouse. I nearly went nuts with the noise!

Oh! The funniest thing happened yesterday afternoon. Hap appeared in our room with (of all things) a baby otter!! He borrowed it from a fellow who works for the French here in Phnom Penh, and who has made a pet of this wee otter. Well, was it ever the funniest looking thing! It was on a leash and looked and acted just like a wee kitten – in more ways than one. Hap plopped the creature down on my bed and, before I could shout a warning about what I feared was inevitable – IT BOOBED!! Tsk, tsk, what a mess, right on my bed. We got the old Chinese cleaning woman in to change the bed and she just shook her head as she removed the sheets and gave us such a look, as if to indicate that all Canadians were crazy in the head. Anyhow, it was worth a good laugh.

Today is a rather important day in Cambodia. Today is the day of the big referendum which will decide whether the King of Cambodia shall have anything further to do with Cambodian politics (if I’m not mistaken). People are pouring into the polling booths and the traffic is absolutely mad. The building right next door to our office is one of the polling centres and all day long the street we’re on has been clogged tight with bicycles.


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