Thursday, August 25, 2011

CBRIII #12: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Reading Saturday was such an incredible and bewildering experience that I decided to pick up On Chesil Beach. Later, when I was talking Emily about it, she said the McEwan really specializes in the gut punch at the end of his books, and she is really not wrong.

Like Saturday, On Chesil Beach unfolds in real time. It is the wedding night of Florence and Edward and the book opens with them sitting awkwardly at dinner in their honeymoon suite while two waiters serve them their meal courses. Set in 1962 in England, Florence and Edward are both young and in love, but unable to openly express their feelings to each other. Edward, for example, comes from a poorer, more working-class family background, and throughout the book, he has to try and fold away his rashness from Florence so as not to push her further into her shell. Meanwhile, Florence is kind of uptight and closed-off, and though McEwan implies that it's due to her upbringing and the way a woman is the 60s is expected to act, Florence often wonders if there is something wrong with her.

All this, of course, leads to the question of sex. The young couple has never had sex, and McEwan goes so far to illustrate that Edward's marriage proposal to Florence came out of a desire to consummate their relationship. Though both individuals routinely profess love for each other, whether out loud or in their heads, there is a sense that neither knows very much about what goes on in their heads. McEwan's tightly-paced writing made me eager for them to just "do it already!" but it also inserted a feeling of doubt. At one point, Florence thought that "Sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it." I felt so sad for her because it's unnerving to me to have to marry someone and think that sex is the punishment in order to have be with someone you love. On the flip side of the coin, Edward is so excited to have her. He saw his sexual desire for her, but also feels that he one day cannot wait to have a young child with Florence. This thought, he took to be a sign of maturity, which is what prompted him to ask her to marry him.

I keep debating back and forth whether if I should have add a spoiler note on this review so that I can really discuss my feelings on it, but I think I am going to let the book stand on its own (without my own oh-so-important thoughts about the ending). While reading it, I kept anticipating for the next event and I was eager to learn more about Florence and Edward's upbringing and thought process. It's weird, and I can't tell whether if it's from McEwan's talent or if it's a result of the real-time type of plotting, but I did not think I was at all that invested with the characters until I got to the end. I barely identified with Florence, though I could understand her need and want to communicate with Edward, yet being unable to let the words form in her mouth. Meanwhile, I think I identified way too heavily with Edward, and McEwan's focus on him toward the end of the book absolutely killed me. The ending flashed by, compared to the slow (but not in a bad way) unfolding beginning, and I kept thinking, "No, this is too fast. Go back." McEwan managed to actually sneak up on my emotions and sucker-punch me in my metaphorical stomach, and the book ended up affecting me more than I thought it would (Funny how I keep saying that about all the books I read.)

I finished On Chesil Beach at a coffee shop, and after I was done, I felt so shell-shocked that I was actually in the real world. My heart was completely broken for Florence and Edward, and even as I tried to articulate my feelings later to someone who haven't read it, about why the book was so unbelievably heartbreaking, my words still were not able to fully form the sadness that came with the ending. It's a really simple story, really, but it left me thinking about it for days about the complex and nuanced role a person's gender can play into a loving relationship, but also how in the end, people often just live in their heads and if they were just able to properly articulate their feelings, they could possibly/maybe work their lives out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Weekend in Siem Reap!

I went to Siem Reap with Emily two weekends ago since her parents were in town. It was really nice and super surreal—kind of felt like I was leaving real life for 2 days. Though it only 5 hours away by van, even just a quick jaunt out of Phnom Penh was such a welcome break from the city.

Our friend, Christi, had said that Siem Reap's like Disneyland for adults, and she is not wrong. The entire city is laid out so perfectly and everything seems to be comfortably walkable. There's a street where you can get drunk (allegedly. Emily and I were so beat from temple-hopping that we just stayed in our rooms and watched SYTYCD), and if you want to feel cultured, you can go to the temples. We only had one day to do the temples, so we asked our tour guide, Sokun, to take us to the three best.

First stop is Ta Prohm, which is better known as the temple where Angelina Jolie shot Tomb Raider. It was seriously hilarious how every single tour guide seem to have met Angelina Jolie. "Oh yea, I met her when I helped with the set design team of Tomb Raider," Sokun said. "She's very sexy." (I know it sounds like I think he's lying—he probably is—but that seems to be the schpiel that every tour guide dropped at this temple. I think they think Westerners really like Angelina Jolie, which you know, they're not wrong about.)

Sokun was an amazing tour guide and really informative, but I'll give you my cliff notes version: There are some very large, enormous trees in this temple. Some of the temple is actually held up by the giant tree roots, so if you cut down the trees, you will be removing an integral part of the temple's foundation.

I took a lot of photos of all three temples, but my photos will just not be able to convey the awesomeness of each temple. So I'll try to show off my favorite parts of each temple. Like this! Dinosaur carvings!!!

See the Stegosaurus?

It was really funny how Sokun pointed those out. He was showing us some intricate carvings with Apsara dancers on them, just describing in detail how each dancer is in a different position. Then he went on the other side of the column and just pointed at it and said, "Look. Dinosaurs." then walked away. Subtext: Westerners get Angelina Jolie and dinosaurs. No explanation required.

On our way to the second temple

Emily contemplating the giant face gate to the Bayon temple

The second temple was called Bayon, and it's famous for having enormous statues of faces.

There was a really intricate depiction of an epic battle on a stone wall. The creators of the wall even carved out different features for the different nationalities battling—for example, the Khmers had longer ear lobes, the Chinese had smaller eyes and wore hats and the Vietnamese looked kind of like mean monsters. (Quick Cambodia cultural lesson: Cambodians really don't like the Vietnamese. The word "Yuon" is the Khmer word for Vietnamese, but it also has a derogatory connotation to it.) Here's about a tenth of the wall with Sokun.

Did I mention that Sokun was awesome? I know i'm not saying too much about the temples and its histories (and frankly, a quick google search would probably do it far more justice than my half-remembered made-up blabbings) but he really had just this wealth of information. I know he probably could have been making half the shit up and I wouldn't have noticed, but he would go along with all these facts, and then correct himself after because he wanted it to be right. We basically spent the entire day with him and though I don't remember too many historical facts about the temple, I now know a lot about him and his life, and man, he is one fucking interesting person.

Here is a family photo of Em and I:

There were also Buddhist shrines set up in various parts of Bayon, with old ladies manning them. One of them beckoned at us and gave us a joss stick to offer to the shrine. Thanks to my buddhist upbrining, I knew that I had to bring the joss stick up to my heart, down to my head then out to the statue (If I remember correctly, it symbolizes giving what's in your mind and what's in your heart). Then I gave a little bow for extra effect. Emily did an awkward half bow with her joss sticks...

After we gave our offerings, the old ladies tied a red string band around our wrists. Emily told me that the lady who gave her the wristlet whispered a blessing of sorts, like good fortune for your future, etc. I didn't get a blessing (I don't think. I might have just been oblivious—it was a semi-emotional experience, to be honest) but it just felt really very nice, and I'm still wearing my red band.

Our third and final temple was the Angkor Wat temple. Here it is in all its reflective glory:

My favorite part about this temple was being able to go up to the highest level and looking out. The highest level is also kind of a bitch to get to—you gotta hoof up these very steep rickety metal steps that were constructed just for tourists because the actual stone steps would just be impossible to climb up. And you might not think you get vertigo, until you look down and realize that you could very well fall to your death.

Once I got up to the top, it was like I've been removed from the crowd of tourists and it's totally peaceful and I kind of got why these kings would want to even climb up those steep 72 steps (yea, fact-check that) to pray.

View from the top, in a photo that really does no justice to how great it feels to be on top of the world:

I saw monks on the way out of Angkor Wat.

Next, Sokun took us to the floating villages of Siem Reap. These river communities live on the Tonle Sap river and their entire lives take place there. They have floating school houses and it's very strange to see kids carrying backpacks and leaving the school, except instead of stepping into a car, they are just jumping into a boat.

One thing our friend, Will, had told us to look out for in the floating villages were children with pythons. According to him, there are kids just walking around carrying pythons, just hanging out with their python best friend. The reality is that these kids are actually using the pythons to get tourists to take photos of them so that they can get money for photos. I mean, I guess it's effective if you like kids hollering aggressively while waving a snake in your face, but it just struck me as incredibly manipulative and bleh I don't like kids or snakes anyway. So I didn't take any photos. Sorry, guys.

Last but not least, Sokun said we could stop at a lotus field on our way back to the hotel. It was wonderful and this was the highlight for me for this entire trip. The lotus field is pretty much an open pond and there was a family living there in a little hut on a raised mud ledge. You could walk around the field on raised mud banks and we saw a man plucking the lotus flowers. Sokun showed us how you can get silk from the inside of a lotus stem, and he gave us some lotus fruit to eat, which were plucked from the insides of the lotus flower's face. It was the most magical place ever and the perfect end to a surreal weekend.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On my way to Siem Reap tomorrow

Yay for mini weekend vacations! Maybe I'll actually blog about this trip when I get back... Unlike the last time when I went to Kep and said I'll blog but didn't. I know, I'm awful at this thing.

This was outside the office today.

A Phnom Penh sunset. That sounds like it should be a drink. In fact, I'll make one up right now:

Muddle a whole bunch of mint leaves with sugar
two parts Cachaca rum
two parts passion fruit juice
splash of cointreau and simple syrup
Shake well
Serve in a collins glass with ice and eat it with fish amok!

(Seriously, if anyone makes this, let me know how it tastes.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Amok amok amok

I got inspired by other Cambodian food blogs to finally do my giant fish amok post, so go read it because I put effort into it.