As usual the countdown to leaving for Cambodia involves a lot of scrambling, last minute packing and good old fashion swearing. While I careened my jeep around Rose Bowl detours in Pasadena in an effort to get Cher and I to all the last minute stops we have to make, my little sister clutched the side of the door, eyed me warily and announced if she wanted to be involved in a crash – she’d much prefer to take her chances on the back of a moto in Cambodia. By five o’clock, the car service was in the driveway, Cher was still in the shower and I was randomly tossing items into my suitcase that may or may not come in handy but I no longer had time to weigh the pros and cons of its inclusion.
I’ll fess up that I was dreading the flight just tiny bit. Okay, maybe more than that. My job requires constant travel and under most circumstances I can keep my deep seeded fear of flying in check. (Though my sister would be quick to point out that bad weather and propeller planes reduce me to a babbling pile of terror – what can I say? I have an aversion to turbulence and traipsing about the sky in a child’s wind up toy) During long flights, I am aided by the smiling flight attendants and their never ending supply of wine and scotch in little plastic cups. However, due to a pesky little lung infection I picked up as a souvenir in Cambodia last summer, I am still stuck on antibiotics and therefore cannot drink. There’s no doubt about it. These 22 hours are going to suck.
Cher apparently agrees because she pushing pharmaceuticals at me like Mary Poppins on crack. She dives into her bag and comes up with a pillbox with an assortment of options. “I only have one valium” she muses. “Maybe I’ll just take it and sleep so you don’t drive me crazy clutching the arm rests the whole way.” I am sure there was a snappy retort to be made but I am trying not to look at her display screen, which is currently set to “pilot’s view.” Cher thinks its great fun to watch the plane hurl down the runway and take off. I find it utterly disturbing and am not reassured by the giant white arrows pointing THIS WAY in case the pilot was unsure what direction he is supposed to go. I close my eyes and try to meditate through the sounds of Bing Crosby telling me to have myself a Merry Little Christmas though the Thai Air loudspeakers.
This is my 3rd trip to Cambodia in just 9 months. I could never have imagined while filming my documentary Small Voices, that Cambodia would become such a permanent part of my life. And while that project is finished, another one has sprung up to take its place. Last spring, while in Siem Reap I met a young boy with Cerebral Palsy named Sum Namg. This sweet boy was unable to move on his own, his life limited to the four walls of his crib with no chance for his bright, inquisitive mind to be challenged and given the opportunity to grow. His situation was representative of the challenges and issues facing handicap children in Cambodia. I worried over what his future held and suspected I knew – a drastically shortened life expectancy. To make matters worse, the orphanage where he was being cared for was only able to support and shelter him until he was six years old. After which he would be sent back to the village he was born, despite the fact his parents were dead. Together with my friend Hasan, we began to search for a safe place for Sum Namg to live. Somewhere his special needs would be met and an opportunity for education at his own pace. And we pretty much came up with nothing. Frustrated, I decided to deal with the short term first and dragged my sister Cher to Cambodia in August. And by ‘dragged’ I mean I plied her with pictures of Sum Namg and his situation and then simply sat back as she charged forward full stream ahead, only occasionally pausing to see if I was still behind her. Cher is a CP specialist and if anyone could access the situation and develop a plan for improving little Sum Namg’s quality of life – she could. After only one week of working with him – his progress suggested an entirely different future if only he had a place to flourish.
Over dinner one night with my friend John Whaley, an amazing guy who heads the board of CFI (The Coalition For Financial Independence) in Siem Reap, we decided if a place didn’t exist, then we’d simply have to build one. Thus the concept of Safe Haven was born: An educational and therapeutic live in school for handicap children. I’ve discovered that building a school in a developing country is a lot like making a movie. It requires an exceptional crew, a lot of money, and nothing ever goes according to script.
My attention in Cambodia remains firmly divided between the Safe Haven project and my Small Voices kids and the first part of this trip is as always, dedicated to spending time with them. Cher and I land in Phnom Penh and I’m eager to get to the hotel and go find my sweet little Lina, the street wise 6 year old I met while she was begging on the streets with her brother Charam when she was 2 and he was “12”. (Charam told me he was 12 for nearly 3 years so I’ve never been sure how old he actually is. These days he looks around 14 or 15, so I suspect he was really 10). Cher is pleasantly surprised at the weather. There are 3 seasons in Cambodia: Very Very Hot and Humid; Very Very Hot and Humid with Heavy Rain and Very Hot. In January – the height of tourist season – it is simply Very Hot and Humid.
Very soon we are checked into our hotel- The Quay – a new place on the riverfront. It boasts a chic roof top restaurant, occasionally reliable Internet in the room and the world’s smallest elevator that doesn’t have a safety mechanism on the door. A fact we discover when they slam shut on Cher and she is leaping inside. In short order, we have unpacked, changed and sallied forth into the streets of Phnom Penh to hail a Tuk Tuk to take us to Azazi’s Place – the school Lina has been living at since I enrolled her there last August. For the first time since I met my little artful dodger living on the streets of Phnom Penh, I arrive in Cambodia knowing exactly where she is. Normally, the first part of my visit has always been spent searching the alleys and abandon pagoda buildings for her, seeking out her latest place she had found to curl up and call “home.” Sometimes I was successful and sometimes I was not – each search filled with apprehension about her safety and tremendous relief when I would discover her, usually filthy and sporting fresh scars from her harsh life.
We arrive at Azazi’s Place and find Lina in tears. She has just hurt herself playing and has worked herself into a state of unhappiness as only a 6 year old can. I pick her up and comfort her and she sits quietly in my arms for a few minutes, tucking her head under my chin. However, we are armed with presents and her previous hurt is soon forgotten. I have printed her a digital photography book filled with pictures of her and her brother Charam and myself and she delights in each page, pointing us out and saying out names. Then it is on to the box of Disney Princess miniature figurines and she surprises Cher and I by knowing who Cinderella is. But the big hit of the day is the Disney View master. Lina is absolutely delighted with the “magic” of looking through the Viewfinder and seeing scenes from different movies. She looks at each picture, exclaims in delight and then slaps the Viewfind against my face to show me what she is seeing. And I am suspecting Azazi’s Place has a few Disney Movies on hand because she loudly says “BOOBOO and MEEEEKKK” and then whaps me with Viewfinder so I can see Boo and Mike, the monsters from Monsters, Inc. Cher is busy teaching the other kids at Aziza’s how to make braided bracelets and we pass a wonderful afternoon that ends all to quickly. I kiss Lina goodbye and promise to be back to visit her tomorrow. She carefully gathers up her dolls, View master and photo book and puts them into a small box. Balancing her box on her head, she tromps up the stairs towards her bedroom to store her treasures in her closet, just like any other 6 year old. Safe, loved and the future bright with possibilities: I watch her walk away. It has been a long time coming.