My sister is very chipper in the morning.  I am not.  As I groggily open my eyes and start to come to terms with the fact that I must eventually give in to coherency, Cher skips about the room like Pollyanna.  “Breakfast?” she chirps at me as I try to pry my eyeballs open.  I stagger out of bed and pause when I hear what sounds suspiciously like bed springs creaking.  Now I have stayed in enough hotels to recognize certain things and for a brief moment, it appears someone has more energy this morning than even my sister.  But then I notice a peculiar look on her face.  The bedsprings squeak again, but this time as a result of Cher leaning on the wall.  We look at each other, reach out and start poking the wall of our hotel room.  “Squeak, Squeak, Squeak.”  It is disturbing pliant to the touch and has an amorous language.   How romantic.

Feeling more awake and perhaps a bit frisky myself, Cher, Karen and I decide to walk to Fresco, my favorite café for breakfast.  Karen is one of my oldest friends.  We’ve known each other since we were toddlers and went to high school together.  Both of us live lives far from the small town we grew up in.  Mine takes me all over the country and the world and her life as a teacher in international schools has taken her from Spain to China.  We seldom are in the USA at the same time so we decided to meet up in Phnom Penh for a few days.  I’m excited to be able to share a bit of my 2nd home with her.  The night before, she and her partner Gary had joined a group of my friends for dinner and I looked about the table at our party of 9 and thought it ironic to be enjoying an evening with old and new friends in a place so far from where I started out.

While Gary has to return to China, Karen has extended her stay for 2 days to tag along with me as I traipse about the city.  We finish breakfast and are eager to get going to CCF, the school where many of my documentary kids now call home.  The plan, after a quick stop at the hotel, is to grab one of the many Tuk Tuk’s vying for our business.  Both Karen and Cher are vastly amused that many of the Tuk Tuk and Moto drivers know me by name.  Trey, a driver Cher and I used almost non stop back in August greets me with a warm smile and a handshake.  He shows off his shiny new Tuk Tuk with fancy cushions and gold accents.  Cher wryly comments with all the money we gave him in August, he has obviously upgraded his transportation.  I often suspect I over pay the Tuk Tuk drivers.  No wonder they are happy to see me return…

The best reintroduction happens outside the hotel.  I hear my name and turn expecting to see yet another Tuk Tuk driver I have become familiar with in my years here in Phnom Penh.  But it turns out not to be not just any driver – it is Vantha.  When I was filming Small Voices, Vantha became our unofficial wingman.  For the entire shoot, he carted my crew, equipment and I around the city acting as transportation, guide, unofficial advisor and Sherpa all rolled into one.  I have not seen Vantha since the end of the shoot 2 years ago.  The hotel I used to stay in while filming had been sold and the new owners had kicked Vantha and his Tuk Tuk out from the spot he occupied in the front and I had no way to contact him.  But there he was – smiling and giving me a big hug – a gesture of familiarity I am sure the other drivers on the street will gossip about for days.  Apparently a moto driver friend of his recognized me and sent word.  Vantha and I grin at each other.  I’ve found my driver for the week.

Within a short span of time we are at CCF and surrounded by my kids.  I have made each of them a photo book and they are big hits.  The kids are eager to be able to bring them home to show their parents – physical glimpses into their lives that they can share.  Layseng whispers in my ear that her parents are hoping I will be able to visit them at their home in Stung Meanchy – the city dump and I promise I will be there Saturday.  They are my extended family and Layseng’s mother has been ill.  I hope to be able to see what can be done to get her to a local clinic while I am here.

All too soon, after a brisk game of football with Charam in the yard, which serves to reminder me what an old lady I am, the kids have to head to school and we find ourselves with some free time before we are due to visit Lina.  Chirpy Cher knows where she wants to go and I have no objections – U and Me Spa for our $7 massages.  (Though I am absolutely NOT getting a full body scrub this trip after my embarrassing ‘spa bra’ incident in August.”

As it turns out – a foot massage is a little more intimate than I remember.  As my massage therapist is enthusiastically finding pressure points on my upper inner thigh – I debate mentioning to her that my feet are not located anywhere in that vicinity but opted to keep my mouth shut.   My Khmer isn’t that good.

Our indulgence has left us running behind schedule and we hop in Vantha’s Tuk Tuk to head to visit Lina in the middle of rush hour traffic.  Let me provide you a visual of rush hour in Phnom Penh.  Take the worst traffic you can imagine; add in a complete lack of lights and road rules; sprinkle about 5000 motos carrying various dangerous objects sticking off the back and sides and top it off with a dash of kids on bikes and hapless Western pedestrians.  Vantha whips his way in and out of traffic.  I am facing forward and try not to let my face reflect the near accidents all around me.  Cher is recording with her Iphone.  “What are you doing?” I cautiously ask.

“Capturing the moments before our impending death.” She replies.  Karen starts to weigh in on the situation but gestures a little to widely with her left hand and nearly loses it to a moto.  Said moto driver is sporting a helmet per the new helmet law.  He doesn’t seem as concerned with his toddler sans helmet who is balanced on the front handlebars.

We arrive at Aziza’s and Lina comes skipping over and hops into my arms.  Chaos turns to calm in moments and she gives me an Eskimo kiss.  For this I would brave anything.

– Heather E. Connell

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

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