The Meanderthals

It’s a rain-free rainy season so far

Last year at this time we were being buffeted daily by wall-rattling thunderstorms, wading through foot-deep puddles and getting used to the chronic delays of everything as rainy season arrived in earnest.

This year, I can feel the strain of the Cambodian rice farmers who look to the skies every day and wonder when – if at all – the rain will finally come. For them, it’s a matter of survival: no rain, no rice, and no food. My colleague, Sarath, owns 30 hectares of rice paddy in northern Battambong and laments that fact that less than half of his land will produce appreciable rice this year. “I will break even, but it not good,” he proclaims with a characteristic grin.

But the situation is becoming dire. And this in a country that has struggled mightily to produce a rice surplus, finally becoming exporters as well as providing enough food for the country’s 14 million people.

One of my daughter’s friends spent a month in a tiny village in Kandal Province, where people prayed for rain daily and hurriedly thrust knives in the ground when the skies would open up and deliver wet relief. Her explanation for why it’s not raining: “there are no trees around the village. In the city, there are tall buildings, and rain is attracted to the tall buildings.”

This is a theory which, if not mystifying enough in its own right, would hardly explain the lack of precipitation this year in a city peppered with tall buildings.

Like all things in Cambodia, ask the same question of 10 people and you’ll get 10 answers. 

“No rain.” says one. “It good,” says another. “It rain in Mondulkiri but not in Battambong, where most rice is grown,” says another, clearly dependent upon the rumor mill as his source of accurate information. Perhaps he hadn’t learned of the tree theory.

But it’s weird to watch the clouds build at the normal time each day – between 2 and 4 – and then simply give way to more brilliant blue sky and searing heat without leaving as much as a drop of water on the parched earth below. 

Wednesday’s English-language dailies both contained stories about the unusual lack of rain – and they, too, conflicted in their conclusions. One report said that if rain doesn’t begin substantially within the next week most of the country’s key rice-growing regions will be devastated and millions of people left hungry. The other quoted a government official who said most of the country’s significant rice-growing regions would suffer enormously if rains don’t arrive in earnest within the next three to four weeks.

Government spokesmen here rarely add value to the flow of accurate information. Masters of equivocation, they.

So I’m going with Sarath’s version, which may be summarized thusly: It fine if no rain this week and next. If no rain after that, “It a disaster.”

Speaking of confusion, Monday’s staff meeting at the NGO I work for offered a robust cornucopia of bafflements that strained the limits of my limited command of Khmer and also my patience as I struggled to keep pace with what was being discussed over two sweaty hours.

First item was the meetings. We have two important gatherings coming up – the monthly board of directors session (which I have affectionately labelled the “bored directors” meeting – and the long-awaited strategic planning meeting, in which we’ll craft a new three-year strategy for our NGO.

But the highlight of Monday’s meeting was not the agenda nor participants of these two gatherings, but the format in which the agenda should be written, who should write it, and how the contents (when we get around to deciding that insignificant detail) should be communicated to the participants. This earnest discussion lasted nearly an hour, during which I read both local newspapers, texted my frustrations in detail to Gabi and jumped in with an occasional comment to let them know I was still breathing.

I’ve not felt this bored since we were seated in the front row of last year’s Good Governance meeting, a weighty gathering conducted entirely in Khmer and consisting of little more than lip-flapping and proselytizing. (I’m told the contents of this meeting are nearly copied each year and replicated for those who’ve heard it all before as well as those to whom it might appear as foreward-thinking prescience of some value.)

But epic meetings, confusion and obfuscation are the tools of daily travail here. And it’s more than the language barrier – it’s deeply cultural, this lack of clarity and clear communication. Indirect, hell: it’s chronically and irreparably obtuse. Witness the following temple-throbbing discussion – also at the weekly staff meeting – about our travel plans and needs to cover upcoming conferences in the provinces.

Colleague: “Frank: You want to go to Mondulkiri (the world’s bumpiest 10-hour shared-taxi ride)?”

“Sure. When.”

“We will leave tomorrow.”

“Oops. No way.”

“OK,” chimed in Sarath. “You will go with me to Siem Reap.”


“Sure. When.”

“Next Thursday. But we leave Wednesday.”

Yesterday I learned that the purpose of the trip to Siem Reap is a conference being conducted by our partner who is charged with educating the country’s youth on oil, gas and mining developments. That means I’ll be sitting (probably in the front row, again) in a hotel conference room for eight hours, listening to Sarath and others drone on about extractive industry development and the government’s involvement with these nascent industries.

I’m seriously considering going, which is as much a comment on my level of boredom in the office these days as anything else. I’ve been to Siem Reap enough to know it fairly well, but, as the song says, “the change would do me good.”

Besides, if I stay in Phnom Penh I’ll have little to do other than to stand on our balcony and gaze skyward, wondering when at long last it will rain.

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