It’s my last day in Phnom Penh and I’m already dreading saying goodbye to the kids. I know the day is going to pass much too quickly and we’ve got a full schedule to attend too. From 10am to 3pm there is a citywide karate tournament for all the kids in the various NGO’s. It is taking place in a large arena at the nearby Friend’s School and Charam and Bunlong are beside themselves with excitement and pride. They are both competing for CCF and have already dressed themselves carefully in their ghi’s and belts. I’m a little stuffed with excitement and pride myself and am thankful that I am actually there for such an important event.
The arena is about 120 degrees and Karen and I are drenched with sweat within minutes of arriving. She goes off in search of some warm bottled water and soda and I secure us a prime spot sitting on the stage facing the front of the competition floor. The organizers are trying to keep the heat down by keeping the lights fairly low. I am not sure this is really having much of an impact but I’d rather not test the theory by raising the lights. My thin grey shirt has become progressively more transparent in this sauna and lights would probably just add to the show.
Bunlong is up first and he and another boy from a competing school each demonstrate various karate forms. Bunlong wins his round but loses his second and is eliminated from the next match up. When they call Charam’s name my stomach is in knots hoping he does well. I move right up to the edge of the mat with my little video camera like an obnoxious stage parent and bounce nervously on the sidelines. Being bias, I think he absolutely kicks the other kid’s butt. However, I find myself holding my breath waiting for the judges’ decision. Charam wins the round and runs over to me with a huge grin on his face. I give him a big hug and kiss and tell him how proud I am. He struts away looking very pleased with himself.
When his final match is called he strides full of confidence to the center of the mat and begins. His charisma is hard to ignore and the other CCF kids are loudly cheering for him when he finishes. I nearly bust with pride when he wins again as if I had anything to do with his work and dedication. The only thing that spoils the moment is when we find out the awards are going to be given out the next day and I have to tell Charam I am leaving in the morning.
Karen and I decide to go grab a quick late lunch before heading back to CCF. We have plans to take Layseng and Hov Nghan home to the Stung Meanchy Dump Village. They usually go home Saturday evening and I want to visit and bring food to their parents whom I got to know while I was filming Small Voices. As we walk outside there is quite a spectacle going on. The International Asian Circus Troupe is in town and putting on a parade. We walk along with them marveling at the costumes and artistry. Just when I think I have seen it all here. I do love this city.
At 5pm Karen and I secure a Tuk Tuk. Our moto drive is disappointed, but there is no way we can fit us, the kids, four boxes of noodles and two cases of oranges on the back of his moto. He’s willing to try but I enjoy my skin and neck too much to risk it. We’ve lucked out with our Tuk Tuk driver. His English is amazing. Even more incredible, he has wired his Tuk Tuk with speakers and an Ipod and is blasting Jethro Thull as we bounce along. It’s rush hour and almost full evening by the time we pull up to Stung Meanchy. This is Karen’s first experience with the village at the dump and the first thing she notices is the thick haze of smoke from the burning garbage.
We drive in as far as the Tuk Tuk driver is willing to go and unload our kids, food and head off to Nhgan’s house first. Within moments there is a massive group of kids trailing after us. Karen quickly discovers the pied piper syndrome I have experienced here when I show up in the village. Look away for one moment and when you look down, there are three small children dangling from your arms and legs. Filthy from their day working in the garbage, they are also usually covered in scabs, lice and sores. But their high spirits reflect their amazing resilience. They laugh and tumble at our feet practicing their English and asking us our names over and over.
Nhgan’s mother is thrilled to see me despite the fact that I catch her bathing. She quickly rinses off and hurries toward me, clutching both my hands and beaming with happiness. Despite our language barrier, we manage to convey our greetings and our pride in Nhgan’s progress at school. His father shakes my hand and they are grateful for the housewarming gift of noodles and fruit we have brought with us. We finish our goodbyes and move off to Layseng’s house with our small army of village kids in tow. Layseng’s mother sees us coming and hurries over to meet us. They are clearly happy to see their daughter and invite us into their hut. We decline because darkness is fast approaching and Karen wants to view Stung Meanchy before we do. Nhgan insists of escorting us up the giant hill of garbage and fusses over Karen, holding her hand and making sure she doesn’t lose her footing in this sea of refuse. We stand in the middle of the vast garbage dump and watch silently as the thick smoke only partially obscures the workers loading up the large bags of recycling that has been collected that day. The dump is quiet this time of the evening as most of the families and kids are back at the village for their evening meal. It is impressive and sobering all the same and Karen silently takes it in. I point to a large truck with a couple of young guys working on it and smile at Nhgan. He touches my shoulder. “You find me up there Heather” he says. I remember that day so clearly. The serious young man who called to me from the top of the dump truck where he was picking through the garbage with a hand made pick. He wanted so desperately to tell his story. How blessed am I that we found each other in this inhospitable place?
As the light fades, Nghan becomes visibly more concerned and tugs at me. “We go, Heather,” he urges. I have received the same vibe. When darkness falls, Stung Meanchy becomes an even more dangerous place with various gang activity and older, jaded young men with trouble in their eyes. We’ve already attracted attention from a gang who call out something in Khmer to Nghan, which causes him to hurry us along. In no time, we are back in the village and Layseng joins back up with us as we walk back to the Tuk Tuk. As we walk along the garbage-strewn path I look down and notice she is wearing the white dress shoes we bought for her at the mall yesterday. Yesterday when she seems like just another teenager and far removed from this reality of the place she calls home.
When we reach the Tuk Tuk Layseng promptly bursts into tears and Nhgan clutches my hand. I hate leaving them behind. I hate that I am grateful that I will be able to go to my hotel and take a shower to scrub off the smell of smoke and garbage clinging to my skin. I hold Layseng close and assure her and Nhgan that I will be back before the end of the year. They watch as we pull away and both Karen and I are quiet and thoughtful on our way back to CCF to say goodbye to the other kids. It gets no easier at CCF as I say goodbye to Lyda, Layseng and Meng Ly. Charam, with whom I have an especially close relationship, follows me out to the yard. I tell him how much I love him and how proud I am of him. He nods and buries his head in my neck. “You come back, Heather. You come back.”
I wonder if he knows that part of me never leaves.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.