“I’ve never given much thought to how I am going to die” my little sister chirps at me as we careen along the streets of Phnom Penh at night, sans helmets on the back of a moto bike with a driver that cares little for such mundane concepts as road rules, construction zones or other moving vehicles. Out of habit, I simply have stopped looking in either direction. If I am going to get broadsided by a Tuk Tuk and flung to my impending death, I’d rather not see it coming. The baby balanced on the handle bars of the moto bike zipping past us appears to not share my concerns but I don’t have time to contemplate this due to the fact I am nearly bounced right off the back due to an impromptu short cut over the rubble of a sidewalk under repair.
We’re heading back after an evening theatrical performance by the CCF kids. Just your standard, uplifting piece about life in Stung Meanchy, the city dump. That old adage – you write what you know is certainly in effect here. Scenes unfold on stage showing the day-to-day struggles that all of these kids know far too well. Scavenging, stealing – breaking open used bottles to try and suck moisture out of them. People dying and living with chronic illness and exhaustion. Even though the performance is in Khmer- a language barrier is nothing of the kind as the emotions onstage unfold. It’s too much for some of the kids watching the play. Layseng falls into my arms at the end sobbing. The main character in the play dies in the dump and I’m sure she is reliving the death of her uncle, who was run over by a bulldozer in front of her.
After an emotional day, Cher and I are ready for a little R&R and we head to my favorite local massage parlor. An hour later and $8 poorer, we are far more relaxed and happy than we were on the ride of death and we head next door to Pop’s – a little Italian place for some dinner. Well, some dinner for me. Cher’s diet is very restricted due to allergies and other issues and she figured (wisely) that Cambodia might be a tough place to get organic, gluten free fare. So she pulls out a rice bar while I order a much needed glass of wine. Suddenly, the weight of the last 24 hours comes crashes down on us and the ability to carry on a coherent conversation goes on hiatus. Cher is suddenly convinced that everything that happened on Monday took place over two days and nothing I say seems to convince her otherwise. Of course, my exhausted arguments are fairly mono symbol and frankly, don’t make any sense to me either since I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s time to call it a night.
We awake in the morning with a renewed sense of purpose. It is an important morning with long-term ramifications for my little street urchin, Linna. The task at hand – convince her mother to allow Linna to leave the streets and live full time in the school I have enrolled her in. The staff at Azazi’s Place is geared for a confrontation but I am confidant Yorn will agree without issues. Yorn has come to expect my steady presence the last four years and she knows it is her best interest to let Linna go to school. Indeed, she agrees without hesitation. She only pauses to ask Linna if she wouldn’t rather just come to the United States and live with “Mak Tor” (godmother). It is a familiar refrain and one that drives me crazy. Yorn after all, also tried to give me her 2-year-old Charan shortly after he was born. I know that Linna is a self-sufficient street kid, but it can’t be pleasant for her to always hear her mother trying to give her away.
With Yorn’s permission firmly in hand, Cher and I head to the market with Linna for some basic supplies. First up is a backpack. Linna is beyond pleased and straps it on right away proclaiming that it is for “school”. Then we purchase some clean clothing for her to wear. Cher buys her a doll at one of the market stalls and Linna happily chatters away to it with her news of the day. We head to CCF so Linna can visit Charam and I can spend some time with my kids there.
Note to Self: I am NOT 14 years old anymore. (Side note to self – Jeans are not the right clothing for playing football with 14-year-old boys in 120-degree weather)
Our day winds to a close with my sleepy Linna tucked into my arms in the Tuk Tuk as we head to her new home at the Azazi’s School. We manage to get lost heading over but it brings us by a small store with teddy bears and Linna points in delight. Since I have no willpower when it comes to this child, I have the driver pull over and I buy the bear at a ridiculous price. Linna is so happy, she clutches the bear in her arms and kisses it over and over.
Leaving her is harder than I thought. In my heart, I know she is going to be safe and warm in a real bed tonight, but I am leaving my little street urchin with strangers at the place she will now call home. I’ve agreed to not visit for a few days to let her get acclimated to the kids and the school and staff but I am fretting over the whole thing. Cher has to drag me out of the school and already I am impatient for news on how she is adapting.
How wonderful to be able to worry about how she is doing, knowing where she actually is when only two days ago, I was worrying because I didn’t know where she was at all. Some days are simply better than others.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.