It’s our last day in Phnom Penh and Cher and I are overcompensating by trying to cram as much activity as possible into one day. Already the kids are guilt tripping me about leaving. Layseng has a football match Sunday morning and tells me she can only win if I am there. Catholic guilt – good in any country.

We get a very early start at CCF at 6:30 am sharp on the express request of Kaana, the CCF administrator who has been juggling our schedule this week. Every Saturday morning all the CCF kids head over to the Olympic Stadium for a free for all of pick up football games and socializing. However, Cambodia time is rather like Los Angeles time – no one ever actually pays attention to schedule. We don’t actually leave for another 45 minutes and I can’t help but think we could have squeezed in a coffee ahead of time. And trust me, Cher is wayyyyy more pleasant with caffeine. I pass the time playing football with the boys in the surprisingly pleasant early morning breeze.

In no time we are crammed 8 deep into a two person Tuk Tuk. All my kids want to ride with us and who are we to say no? I figure if the Tuk Tuk crashes, we are packed so tight it will be like wearing a seat belt. Hundreds of kids from various NGO’s pack the Olympic grounds and everyone spills out of the Tuk Tuk excited. The boys want me to join in a full fledged game but I use the handy excuse that I want to take pictures to get myself out of a situation where I am likely to wind up crawl fishing in the dirt with my tongue hanging out seizing from heat stroke.

The boys laugh and shout and tear up and down the dirt field while the girls giggle and chat about boys. Teenagers are the same everywhere. My kids are eyeballing the time. Later on this morning we are all headed to market, each of them with $20 burning a hole in their pocket for new clothing and shoes. It is a tradition each time I am here to go shopping with them and then have lunch and ice cream. The morning flies by and within very short over my gang is on their way to the Russian Market. We make a quick pit stop to pick up my little Linna at her new school and give Charam a chance to check out her new digs. He is very pleased with her school and room, but confides to his teacher and me that he misses her desperately. The feeling is mutual – from the second we arrive; Linna has glued herself to his side. She slips a beaded bracelet she made in craft class on my wrist and it’s the best piece of jewelry I now own.

In short order, we are inside the market, where the temperature easily is topping 115 degrees. I pray the kids will find something quickly so we can move on to the restaurant and cold, cold drinks. Linna just LOVES to shop and she picks out several pink outfits, socks, a fish purse and bracelet for a $8. Cher is marveling that she was able to buy Shrey Leap, who is out at market for the first time, outfits with the brand The Children’s Place with the tags still on them reading $18 for mere $8. The chaperone from the day care is horrified – telling Cher she overpaid by at least $5. Cher has not yet been able to grasp the bartering system here. Just the other day she paid $5 for two sodas thinking it was a bargain compared to home. I’m sure the drink cart lady was thrilled to death when Cher walked away without her change of $4.50. I on the other hand, bought the football playing boys 25 waters for the same price.

The heat is even starting to get to the Cambodians and we head to the restaurant for some food and fun. Linna, who outweighs Shrey Leap by around 40lbs even though they are the same age, quickly tucks into a big sandwich. She eyeballs it, announcing to the group that her mouth is not big enough. That doesn’t stop her from attempting to shove it in anyway. She quickly cleans her plate. Charam then proceeds to give her half of his chicken dinner and his fries. This is typical of Charam, who always makes sure his sister has enough to eat. Their years of living on the street and providing for her are ingrained in his whole being. The teacher from the Day Care watches him care for her and feed her and comments to Cher about their special, close bond. Linna plows on, finishing Charam’s lunch and then tucks into a plate of fruit. Shrey Leap eats two fries and a bite of rice and watermelon.

My gang makes merry at the table acting like any group of teens. Looking at them, it is hard to believe that they are survivors – raised in extreme poverty, former garbage pickers who slept and scavenged all day and night for scraps to recycle in the burning refuse of Stung Meanchy, finding body parts and dead babies and seeing friends and family run over by dump trucks.

We are about to get a reminder. As the day winds to a close, Nghan and Layseng are heading home to Stung Meanchy for the weekend to spend it with their families. I am very close to both sets of their parents and I head home with them to pay my respects and visit. Nghan’s family had invited me to their eldest daughters wedding last month and I wasn’t able to attend. We park the Tuk Tuk on the outskirts of the village and walk into the smoky haze of ramshackle huts and garbage. Flies are thick and half dressed naked toddlers are everywhere. The village kids see us coming and quickly hoard us. It probably has something to do with the vitamin C lollipops Cher is handing out. We arrive first at Nghan’s house via a very uncertain wood “bridge”. Cher is treading carefully certain it is going to collapse beneath her. Nghan’s mother greets me warmly. In short order, we are inside his hut and looking at an album of wedding pictures. We spend some time catching up and then head over to Layseng’s house. On the way we run into other children I know and we greet them by name with hugs and kisses.

At Layseng’s house, her parents put out stools and I introduce them to my little sister. They are excited to meet her and we talk about the difficulties they are facing now that the government has closed Stung Meanchy to the garbage pickers. They have no way to make a living and no means by which to travel to the new garbage site 8 kilometers away. I leave them with my traditional gifts of noodles and fruit and they tell me they wish they could give me gifts in return. I remind them that they are part of my family and family takes care of each other. Their gift to me is far more important – being included in their family and having the love of their wonderful daughter Layseng in my life. We are saying our goodbyes and getting ready to leave as we are quickly losing the light when a little voice pips up “CHER! CHER!” We turn and little Shrey Leap is running at top speed. She jumps into Cher’s arms, thrilled to see her sponsor in her village. Cher is even more thrilled, grinning from ear to ear and kissing her. It turns out that not only does Shrey Leap live a few houses over, but she is Layseng’s little sister Jeni’s best friend. With this happy discovery, we detour over to her house to meet her parents, running into yet another little girl we know – Naïve –on the way. Naïve attends Aziza’s Place, Linna’s new school and has promised me she will be a big sister to Linna.

After meeting Shrey Leap’s family it is time to go. Nhagn and Layseng walk us back to our Tuk Tuk and we head back to the hotel feeling heavy hearted at leaving the kids behind. Early the next morning, we complete the round of goodbyes with Leakhena, Meng Ly, Lyda and Charam at CCF and promise again we will return in January.

With our first week behind us, we are happy, exhausted and feeling reflective. Already Cher is in love with Cambodia and the kids and we haven’t even gotten to Siem Reap yet, where little Sum Nang, the 5 year old boy in the crib with CP awaits our visit. We are getting ready to fall in love, all over again.

– Heather E. Connell

Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.

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