Saturday’s Fire and Sovanna Phum Event

The Graber Millers had a rather remarkable Saturday afternoon, with a neighborhood fire taking 10 homes and/or businesses and threatening many others. We watched the fire unfold from our fourth-floor apartment balcony, accompanied by Sarah L-R, who happened to be here at the time. The fire was four adjoining structures away from our apartment complex, but the wind was blowing toward the north, so the fire followed that trajectory down the block. All of our neighbors were watering their rooftops with buckets and hoses, and businesses cleared out their goods. Motorcycles from a store in the line of the fire filled our apartment’s ground-floor lot, and other neighbors shared space in their homes for store cabinets, furniture, and other goods that were hauled out by families and assistants.

While we watched, the flames shot up more than four stories high, with no firefighters in sight yet. For a time, we thought we might need to evacuate our building as well. From our balconies we could feel the heat of the flames. For several minutes, it looked certain that the orange home directly behind the fires would catch fire, too, and our friends Daron and Kirsten Docken Showalter live in the top floor of that home. We could see the flames reflected in their building’s front windows. Daron and Kirsten, Mennonite Central Committee workers and Goshen College graduates, were out of the country when the fire happened, but likely experienced some smoke damage from the event. (Daron also had been with Ann and Keith on SST in China in 2002, and Kirsten and Daron have both been immensely helpful with recommendations for our SST program.)

About 20 minutes into the blaze, firetrucks began showing up from all directions, and ultimately about a dozen trucks were parked on our street, along with throngs of people who were assisting or watching the firefighters’ efforts. Later that evening we saw the charred homes and businesses, with families trying to salvage metal chairs, flower pots, and whatever else was still intact. In a country with no/minimal insurance, we wondered where the families would go next, or how they would reconstruct their lives. Very sad.

Saturday evening we planned an event to celebrate Cambodia’s arts and culture, visiting Sovanna Phum with about 40 members of students’ Cambodian families. All but two of the students were able to come — one student went to a birthday party with her family and another was out in the provinces preparing for a family wedding — and most families were represented with two or three members. The Sovanna Phum show consisted of apsara dancing, shadow puppetry, and parts of the story of the monkey king. In various parts of Asia, the monkey stories are mingled with Chinese fables, fairy tales, legends, superstitions, popular beliefs, and monster stories as well as Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

It was a delightful evening where students got a window into traditional Cambodian dancing and story-telling. As they say, a good time was had by all.