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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Sounds

With five days since our groups departure, I’ve been informed that it’s time for our first yak post. Although my first thought when I heard that I had been delegated the responsibility of posting one of the first Mekong Spring 2018 in-country yaks was “yikes”, I’m excited to put some of my initial thoughts about this experience onto paper for all to read.

As our group has probably figured out, I’m a quiet person. It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking about or sharing my thoughts, feelings, and opinions with other people, its more that I prefer to listen — and in a group with such interesting people, in a place that is so hauntingly different from yet similar to home, it can be hard to tear yourself from the sounds of the present to share about your past.

During the past five days of our orientation we have shared so much about ourselves, recovered (miraculously) from jet-lag, and began to learn more about our new surroundings. Personally, the culture shock has been huge. Motorcycles fly through the streets like mosquitoes, the architecture of buildings is vastly different, and the sounds of the Khmer language resonate through the air everywhere. However, despite these ostensibly big differences from home, I’ve found that the other, smaller, less noticeable things have been the source of the greatest shock. For me, this has been sound.

Back home I took familiar sounds for granted. Although the sounds I heard could differ wherever I went, the overall palette of possibilities stayed fairly constant, and despite the various combinations — whether it be of streets or of the countryside — the final portrait could always be stomached.

Here, on the other hand, sounds are different. It’s like someone invented another colour, and has started painting beautiful masterpieces that seem familiar at first glance, but then become disorienting and confusing. Imagine the Mona Lisa, but painted with a new colour called blorange. It would seem weirdly familiar, and yet so incredibly different

Over the past five-days, I’ve started to become not only oriented to these “big things” but also to the small. It hasn’t been easy, and I may not become completely oriented by the time this trip is over. But I believe that if I can continue to listen throughout this trip — to really listen — then I have a shot at learning something completely new, and at becoming enchanted.

Here is an example of what I mean.

Falling asleep last night above the water, I listen. The crickets (if they are crickets — not really sure) chirp softly, speaking back to the low whistle of the wind through the outstretched branches of the mangroves, both intertwined with the harmonious rush of the river current. Human noises then mingle with the natural. A boat engine starts, the ear-splitting sound racing untrammeled through the dark, piercing the thin walls of the bamboo bungalow I lie in like machine gunfire. In the distance I hear prayers, an oscillating amalgam of young and old voices singing together, exploring an infinite range of pitches and intonations and, in doing so, pointing their feet at the Pythagorean division of sound. Through the vibrations of the floor I hear the resonating footsteps past our door, men and women laughing together, walking single file down the thin boardwalk searching for feeling and mutual connection.

All these sounds can appear if only we listen, all constantly combining into beautiful sad dark joyful melodies until they reach a fever pitch, climax, and then collapse into themselves to start again anew. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to sharing some more later on.