Cher is finding Cambodia more civilized than expected ever since she discovered Twinning’s Earl Grey Tea is served at Fresco, the coffee shop on the corner below our hotel room. Our jet lag caused us both to collapse into bed fairly early and thus we were up and ready to go by 6am. Any of my friends could tell you that I am NOT a morning person and my brain usually doesn’t follow my body out of bed for at least 30 minutes. This morning, however, my mind is already working overtime. My lack of success finding Linna is weighing heavily on my mind. At 9am I am suppose to meet Allie, one of the director’s of Azazi’s Place, an art oriented school I was fortunate to be able to get Linna into on a full time live in basis. If I only knew where the hell she was. My great fear is that Yorn has left the city and my chance to get Linna into a permanent, safe environment will have passed me by.
By 8am, Cher and I have hopped into a Tuk Tuk for the short drive to CCF to see my other kids, including Charam, Linna’s older brother. We’ve barely pulled up at the gate when the kids playing in the courtyard catch sight of me and starting hollering that I’ve arrived. So much for the surprise visit I had planned – one of the teachers has spilled the secret and my little family is waiting with glee on the other side of the gate. Charam and Layseng are the first to hug me, smiles split our faces all around. Charam dashes off to find Nhagn and Meng Ly and Layseng heads off to find Leakhena and Lyda. The kids are scattered about the CCF’s spacious building. With summer holiday upon them, they are only in part time classes and all of them are taking advantage of the morning break.
I introduce the kids to Cher and they are thrilled to actually meet one of my family members. Leakhena announces she thinks we look very much alike. Lyda and Layseng and I talk briefly about their new schedule of classes that include Chemistry and Advanced Math. I have plans for my girls that include college and I’m pleased to hear that they continue to make such amazing progress. Nhagn shows off his latest watercolors and present both Cher and I with two of his paintings. A little guy has attached himself to Cher’s hip and she is already measuring him to see if he’ll fit in her carry on.
I take a moment to pull Charam aside and ask if he knows where Linna is. He confirms that they got booted off the sidewalk spot where they were in May and says that Yorn, Linna and the new babies have been sleeping inside the Pagoda near the National Museum Market. Armed with this information, we promise the kids we’ll be back for lunch and Karate class and head back to Fresco coffee shop to meet Allie.
Halfway back to Fresco, our Tuk Tuk driver is zipping through the busy side street by the market when out of the blue; I spot Yorn crossing the street. Yelling at the top of my lungs for us to stop, I jump from the moving Tuk Tuk, shaving a few years off the Tuk Tuk driver’s life in the process. I holler Yorn’s name and chase her up the street. She turns and sees me and I waste no time asking for Linna. I’m of course the least surprised person ever that Linna is not actually WITH Yorn. She asks a nearby street kid if he has seen Linna and he nods and takes off into the Pagoda, beckoning for me to follow. I holler at Cher to stay put in the Tuk Tuk and tear after him. I am clearly not 12 anymore because he quickly loses me in the alleys of the Pagoda. Luckily, the sight of a western woman galloping through the Pagoda is providing free entertainment to a host of Moto Drivers and as I hit an intersection three guys all swing their arms to the right and point me in the direction I need to go. Seconds later, a little head pops up in a nearby doorway. “Mak Tor!” Linna hollers – she scrambles through the door and jumps up into my waiting arms. The relief at finding her is overwhelming. She throws her arms around my neck and laughs, greeting me with kisses. Seconds later, my worried Tuk Tuk driver and Cher pull up. Apparently, he didn’t feel it was the wisest course of action to take off into the Pagoda, home to a variety of street squatters, on my own and he chased me down. Linna is absolutely filthy, her feet and legs are black with dirt. She is sporting a healing scrap on one side of her forehead and a nasty burn that is starting to scab over on her thigh. Her hair, which was shaved about six months ago due to bad head lice, has started to grow out again and the lice have wasted no time in moving back into this inviting homestead. Just holding her in my arms has caused my own scalp to itch madly. She also has a pretty decent cough going on. Thankfully, my shirt absorbs most of the flying cough particles.
With my little imp firmly in my arms, we head to Fresco to meet Allie. We are early so we settle into chairs and get Linna a chocolate ice cream cone. Cher attempts to wipe a clean spot on her face but Linna is a bit suspicious of this strange woman sporting baby wipes and prefers to wipe her hands and nose on her skirt. The suspicion disappears the second we tell her in Khmer that Cher is my sister. Suddenly, they are old friends and Linna deems her fit to share both her affection and germs with her. Cher and I take turns picking little red gnats off her skin at various points throughout the morning, feeling like mother gorillas grooming their young and itching madly with phantom lice.
Within short order, we have met up with Allie and taken a trip over to Azazi’s Place. The school is absolutely perfect and the pink painted girls room enchants Linna. She admires the art and chatters to Cher in Khmer about the posters on the wall while I discuss her enrollment with Allie and Dan, the other executive director. We agreed that it is no longer safe for Linna to be left to her own devices with Yorn and plan on formally meeting the next day with Yorn to get her permission to transfer Linna into the school permanently. It’s hard to believe that last night I despaired of finding her and now we are on the path to starting her education.
With Linna in tow, we head back to CCF to see the karate class and let Linna visit with her brother. My little self-sufficient artful dodger makes herself at home right away. She heads over to the bathroom and hops right into a shower, emerging dripping wet and more or less clean. Then she helps herself to a big bowl of rice and plops down in the dining room to eat. Guess the ice cream didn’t hurt her appetite at all…
The afternoon visit draws to a close and we head back to the Pagoda with Linna to drop her back off with Yorn. To our Tuk Tuk driver’s dismay, Cher and I truck back into the Pagoda on our own. But really, if 6-year-old Linna can handle it, we certainly can. Then again, as Linna leads us into a really dark room and back alley, Cher and I can’t help but think that it was just a tad sketchy. We find Yorn sleeping on a pallet in a back room. After hugs and kisses, we assure Linna we will be back to get her tomorrow and turn to find our way back out of the maze. Linna feels we can’t navigate it ourselves and takes the lead, showing us a short cut through a foul smelling hole into a back alley. She waves good-bye to us and disappears back into her life.
I can’t wait for her new one to begin.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.