Asia | South East Asia | Cambodia | Eastern Cambodia | Kratie – Day 28 – In search of Dolphins, Cambodia
A tear-drop moon drips cream filtered by ghostly strands stretching frail lace, swirled, opalescent, the last and dying skin of earlier storm diffusing a honey sheen on the Mekong impressionist finger-painted ink oil sliding back into darkness beyond the feathered light.
From the river itself a Kampuchean love song fades and waxes, her voice, climbing and descending through night’s soul breath cool on my skin. A woman’s laughter skips along the empty road, crinkly streamer strung from unseen lips upsteam slip-stream. Night’s quiet rhythms fade floating on the gently vibratring waves churned by the tropics silvery torsion heat.
Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath), today. A chance to sit apart from Kratie’s simple cycles, to understand now why they are more active and alive and grating against my circadian time line; why their action breaks my dreams with searing sounds of boats’ horns and throaty hacking diesel engines before even the sun.
To hear and hear again and an hour later again the jingle bells of the pony with blinders gamely clopping now this way, then that way beneath my window, pony head lunging forward involuntarily, willing the wagon-load of feet-bound, squealing fatted pink pigs forward, to meat, their fate. Ah yes, my window, really rust-trimmed french doors, heavy metal (long before guitars laced with a few frail strands of what decidedly is not metal, usruped the name) these doors’ lace a silent art opening onto the curving central balcony above the river-routed main street; my Cambodian presidential suite, review stand for Kratie’s mid-day quiet, sun-induced. Late afternoon swelling silver purple bulbous soaring sky sculptures, led and coal hanging beneath them in angled curtains but even the rainy season’s behemoths are ponderous pushing warning winds toward sunset giving the tikalok lady and her friends on the riverbank time to pull down the bamboo poles, tighten the tarp and hunker down for the big hit now threatened by an angry sky whose eye has been blackened further by sun’s descent and whose heart is licked by nimble lightning tongues. But only distant heavy wooden barrels roll above on rocky roads rumbling apart and releasing a fine wine, semi-sweet, rice paddies getting drunk again tonight, vintage sou’ west monsoon, peters out, parting for a tear drop moon … it starts again.
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Tisha B’Av, so I sit on the floor in symbolic mourning, a strange thing to think that I may very well be the ONLY person in the entire country doing this, fasting and reflecting. Tonight’s earlier storm an appropriate start to this darkest of days in the Jewish calendar, commemorating destruction of Jewish aspirations and life which occurred on this day in history too often. But the flashes of lightning provided glimpses into the transitory nature of the darkness — we are still here when the clouds and their bluster have blown themselves out. Perhaps Cambodia is not such a strange place to mark the day as Cambodia has survived its own recent storm, red clouds – blood red.
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Here the river is too wide and the terrain lining it too flat to even see the other side. Graceless, rugged, scullion craft of a wood still more cheerless and brown than the silt-laden waters they ply, never a stroke of paint to brighten their weary, water-logged hardpan planks. But they get the job done, angling upstream just to sidle the heavy current.
One such craft was our water work-horse two mornings ago as we set out in search of the rare fresh-water Irawaddy dolphin said to inhabit the river nearby; but in ever-diminishing numbers. We were not off to a promising start when the long-tail engine, in essence a lawn-mower motor attached to a small propeller via a long pole, only weezed and shuttered under repeated rips of its starter cord. After 30 minutes and a false start which saw us ply about 50 metres upstream before the engine died to float back downstream to our starting point, we (the five passengers sitting splay-legged and single file down the narrow centre) started looking around for another boat but none was visible anywhere. No, another boat was not to be found, but rather, another motor.
Out with the bad, in with … a motor that looked equally suspect. But this one sparked to life and we headed out into the flat steady flow of the Mekong.
Behind me our teenaged captain folded on his haunches in the stern, one hand on the long tail to steer, one hand holding a string attached to the motor’s throttle to control our speed. Three metres ahead of me, beyond the German couple and the Dutch couple, an elder Mekong statesman in a beaten brown derby hat and leathery brown skin, who acted as navigator keeping a watchful eye on the tree-trunks and other river carrion which regularly bobbed on by; directing the captain with hand signals, the old man seemed to be sensing the currents and sniffing for a hint of dolphin exhale. We crossed a great expanse of open water and then putted about among thousands of islands and partially-submerged trees, not quite swamp, no, too much current and too much open space, open sky.
After some time the captain cried out a muffled ‘mrph’ from behind me, pointing and following his hand did I see something break surface 100 metres away or was that just another eddy drawing circles on the surface? Our elder scout barked from the bow and tied us off to a thicket among islets and our captain cut the motor. These actions were a hopeful sign. I became aware of the river’s muted gurgle all around us as it swept alonside the islets, the only sound. I refocused keenly on the surface, pivoting my head back and forth across the waters like I was watching an invisible slow-motion tennis match, determined to catch a glance of an animal said to number only in the middling double-digits in this stretch with not many more beyond.
Then, as if on cue, we all spotted it: a sleek silver-black arch topped by a triangular fin sliding smoothly up,over an back into the water. And then another. Quite far away but unmistakable. For the next hour or more we sat and then stood in statue stillness (so as not to disturb the dolphins or our precarious balance in the tippy boat) transfixed as these graceful gliders played hide-and-seek with us and the river’s surface. We soon learned to hone in on the sound preceding the sight; a hollow sharp exhale like someone clearing water focefully through a particularly large snorkel. This in fact is not too far from what was bringing the dolphins to the surface. As their blow-holes broke the water they would clear them with a gasp outwards and take in more air for the subsequent dive whose curvey commencement we could then observe as the rest of the the dolphin’s 1.5 metres (or so) followed its blow-hole up, over and then down into the water. It was fascinating. They came within about 15 metres of our position at times and I tried to will them closer. A sweet encounter with what may be the last flag-bearers of fresh-water dolphins.