I was up at 5am waiting for the bus to pick me up for the six hour trek to Phnom Penh when a tuk tuk driver pulled up and asked if I needed a ride. I mentioned my mode of upcoming transportation and rather than seem disappointed at losing a fare, he was thrilled to have a captive audience on which to practice his English. I admit to being a little preoccupied and less than gracious conversationalist. My thoughts were divided on the desperate anticipation of seeing my “kids” in Phnom Penh and of little Sun Nam, the disabled boy from the orphanage the day before. I was anxious to begin my journey on the Mekong Express with my ten-dollar “first class” ticket clutched tightly in my hand and assurances ringing in my head from various individuals that the bus was the way to travel. Though I admit I was a little suspicious listening to people extol the virtues of bus travel to Phnom Penh when Roman, one of CFI’s founding directors suggested at a dinner party the night before that the ride would be more bearable with a handful of valium. My disposition was not greatly improved by the sight of a rickety, beat up overgrown mini van lurching down the street towards me. That better not be the bus – I thought to myself just as my chatty tuk tuk companion helpfully announced – YOUR BUS! It ground to a halt in front of me and from the sounds of the brakes, possibly ground them away completely. I sourly climbed aboard and found myself a seat sans seat belt but at least with an intact back rest. The bus lumbered away, slowly building up speed and in no time we were careening through the back streets of Siem Reap, which at best, are pitted with potholes and large rocks. I moved to the center of my seat to keep from smashing my head against the window. Small wonder people take drugs prior to getting onboard I thought uncharitably as we bounced along with teeth rattling intensity.
My discomfort was short lived however. It turned out to be a temporary bus bringing us to the large cross-country bus we would use for the duration of the journey. I silently sent up a prayer and scurried on board, not even minding that my knees were practically touching my chin in the seat. This one at least had a bathroom and a box lunch with bottled water, which frankly, is one step up from airlines these days. I found myself deep in thought during the journey and enjoyed the scenery of this country I have grown to love as it flashed by. The hours flew by and as we arrived in Phnom Penh, I felt my anticipation grow. I couldn’t wait to see the kids. The entry to the city was not without a bit of adventure. The major road into the city is under construction and a backhoe had dug of the street leaving a thin track on one side and a high pile of dirt on the other. The bus driver seemed not to care and for the next five minutes, our bus angled up dangerously and did its best to attempt a two-wheel approach down the street. The bus leaned far to the right and we all got an enticing view of the deep ditch we might be tumbling into at any moment. A terrified looking white woman in front of me clutched her husband and screeched. It was perhaps a measure of my fatigue or simply a result of being in Cambodia so many times in these types of situations that I simply smiled and noticed the beautiful foliage in the bottom of the ditch.
After checking into my familiar digs at the FCC and freshening up – I dashed up the stairs to the FCC’s bar to meet up with Dr. Karen Froud from the Speech and Pathology Department at Columbia University. Karen and I had hit it off at the screening of my documentary there and she had flown to Cambodia to meet me and spend some time with the girl she sponsors here at the Cambodian Children’s Fund or CCF. Most of the kids from my documentary are now students at CCF, with the exception of Linna, the 6-year-old sister of my beloved Charam, the charming street beggar who stole my heart when I met him working the streets three years ago. While Charam is studying and living at the school, Linna is still too young, so she lives on the sidewalk with her mother and spends her days wandering the city streets – my own little artful dodger. My impatience gets the better of me and Karen and I immediately hop on a moto bike and head over to CCF.
Charam must have a sixth sense about when I am in the country because he always manages to materialize out of thin air within moments of my arrival. Not that I am complaining ~ he loudly yells my name and hurtles down the steps, jumping into my arms with glee. Following behind him is Bunlong, a shy boy who is Charam’s best friend. My own dear friend Dennis Ryan is Bunlong’s sponsor and as soon as I say hello to Bunlong he runs off and reappears clutching Dennis’ latest letter in his hands. I tell him how much Dennis misses him and loves him and he gives me his sweet smile and points to Dennis’ name on the letter.
It isn’t long before my other boys; Meng Ly and Hov Nhagn appear. Meng Ly, who is now 17 is a little too cool to hug me anymore so he simply fist bumps me and says hello. Hov Nhagn has not quite reached that point and wraps his arms around me and hugs me tight. I’m so pleased to see them and can’t wait to see the girls. Word has spread and Lyda, Leakhena and Layseng all dash over for hugs and hellos. I spend the rest of the afternoon playing soccer with the boys (and Leakhena) in the courtyard while Lyda and Layseng, chat and giggle like the 16-year-old girls they are. I promise to return tomorrow for our outing at the mall for a little shopping and lunch and then privately pull Charam aside and ask him if he can tell me roughly where Linna and his mother are now living. The sidewalk spot they have occupied for so long is under construction and they were booted out six months ago. He narrows it down to an area near a market that thankfully is not too far from my hotel. Karen is game to try and track her down and we set off in the hot sun, searching for a little needle in a haystack. My last visit to Cambodia I wasn’t able to find Linna and I’m determined to see her this go around. I’m always petrified I will return and discover she has been snatched off the streets by any number of shady individuals. Not an unlikely scenario given the sex trafficking issues in the country and the fact that Yorn, her mother, pays little attention to Linna’s aimless wanderings. In fact, just a few days before, Linna had walked over a mile to CCF to visit her brother and stayed there for two days before returning home. Yorn hadn’t even noticed she was missing.
Karen and I trudge along while my eyes search the bustling market and sidewalks for my little mischievous imp. I know her hair was shaved off a few weeks ago due to lice so I know it hasn’t grown back that much. Luck is partially with us and I spot Yorn in a hammock. She sees me and immediately gets up and I am dismayed to see she has not one, but TWO new babies. I knew she had given birth to a baby boy shortly after we wrapped filming and was expecting to see the new baby, named Charon. I was NOT, however, expecting to see another infant, whom she introduced as Chara. I realized she must have gotten pregnant again almost immediately after the last birth and to my dismay, it was clear she was pregnant again. I was the least surprised person ever when I asked after Linna and she wasn’t sure where she had gone off too. However, my arrival had attracted attention. Many of Yorn’s neighbors know me well – Yorn refers to me as the kids “God Mother” and within minutes, other street kids are hollering for Linna up and down the street. I wander up the road a little searching. Suddenly, she pops up across the busy street and begins walking away from me. Linna! I shout, hoping she will hear me over the noise of the traffic and market. Her little close cropped head swivels about and she spots me. She yells “Mak Tor Mak Tor!” Dashing across the street she jumps into my arms, throws her head around my neck and kisses me smack on the mouth. “Mak Tor” – she whispers fondly and lays her head on my shoulder.
My day is complete.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.