TWHACK! I’m just about to drop off to sleep when a can of disinfectant, wielded by my bug-killing sibling, nearly takes my nose off in an attempt to kill the fire ant crawling perilously close to my face. Startled back awake, I shout “What the hell” just as Cher finally snaps and gives in to her bug/germ phobia that she has admirably kept in check since our arrival. TWHACK! ‘Where the hell are they coming from?’ she cries. TWHACK! ’27! 28! 29!’ Miss OCD helpfully informs me. I’m hacking madly through the haze of disinfectant she decides to spray all over the bed. ‘No more bugs!’ she shouts. TWHACK! “30! 31!” Suddenly we look at each other and both channel Jim Henson: “31! 31! Fire Ants in the bed! Ah-ha-ha-ha!”
Other than our bed bug infestation, it’s been a fantastic day. We headed over to CCF early in a Tuk Tuk that sounded like it has seen better days. Our driver made a move to cross a busy intersection and he ran out of gas halfway across. While he frantically pushed us out of the way, I eyeballed oncoming traffic that clearly thought we should look out for them. Thankfully, there is a gas station on the corner. And by gas station I mean a lady with a push cart and gasoline in old soda bottles. Our driver forks over a dollar and she hands him a coke bottle. Within moments, we are back enroute. We had plans to meet Chamroeun, a staff member at CCF at 9am for a trip over to the Stung Meanchy Nursery/Preschool. Children under the age of 6 are of particular risk at the dump because they are too young to work, but are left to their own devices while their families pick garbage. It is a familiar sight, one that I am sad to say I am familiar with, to see toddlers filthy and naked, playing and crawling through the garbage all alone. CCF started this Preschool to provide these vulnerable little ones a safe environment to be in during the day while their parents scavenge for trash. I was in Cambodia when the Pre School first opened and there were 18 kids. Today, when we arrive, the population has exploded to 78 ranging in age from infant to 6 years old. Every day they arrive at 8 am and are given showers and a set of clean clothing. They attend classes from 9-11 and then free playtime in the afternoon after nap before heading back home to the dump in the evening.
Cher and I are given a tour of the updated facility, which has had to expand since my last visit to handle the influx of children. The kids are all divided up into their age appropriate classes and we decided to sit in on the 4-6 year olds. Someone, somewhere along the line early in the programs inception, decided it would be a fabulous idea to dress the children in black and white striped uniform shirts. With the bars on the windows, metal trays in hand that they are given for lunch – the overall effect comes across as the world’s smallest chain gang. Cher starts singing “16 Tons” under her breath.
My favorite part of the black/white prison shirts is the fact that all the girls are wearing flowery pink panties and no pants with them. Which is just unbearably cute. It’s hard not to notice many of the children are bald with scabies or sporting other scalp and body wounds. Life in the dump is unforgiving.
Cher and I sit quietly off to the side in the classroom watching the kids study. We are trying not to be a distraction, but I suppose two white women hanging out on the classroom floor is not an everyday occurrence. Needless to say when they call for a play break, the kids all rush at us screaming. Within moments I have at least 5 kids trying to sit in my lap at one time and another perched on the back of my head. Phantom lice are in full effect. They laugh and give kisses, chatting in a mix of Khmer and English, showing off their toys and antics.
Cher had decided earlier in the week after seeing my relationship with my kids here that she wanted to become a sponsor. Chamroeurn lets her know that most of these 4-6 year olds still do not have sponsors so she is waiting to see whom she bonds with. It doesn’t take long. A little whisp of a girl named Shrey Leap who plops herself down in my lap gives her a soulful look. Cher starts asking her questions through a translator and Shrey Leap turns out to be quite the chatterbox. Articulate and quick, she prattles on about everything in her life without pause for breath. My talkative sister has found her Khmer toddler soul mate.
With Shrey Leap perched on her hip, we head over to the lunch area where each child retrieves their metal tray and walks up to a worker who ladles their meal of rice and broth with morning glory. The whole scene looks like a Khmer version of ‘Oliver Twist’.
After a thousand kisses goodbye, we reluctantly leave our little chain gang and head back to the hotel for a much-needed shower. We end the day with dinner and drinks at the FCC overlooking the busy riverfront. As I watch -the street children and vendors bustle along plying their trade; motos zip by with reckless abandon and Tuk Tuk drivers cajole various tourists to pick them for their transportation needs. I revel in Cambodia’s quiet beauty and know I have come home again.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.