Vantha’s Tuk Tuk, which was in deplorable shape 2 years ago, qualifies as a disaster waiting to happen today.  Its frame rattles with death throes as we lurch along, large tears in the upholstery and a make shift automatic gas feeder that pretty much is an old gas can duct taped to the side with a rubber hose running into the tank.  Each time we lurch to a stop, a thin stream of gasoline runs out from underneath.  Cher and I eye it warily hoping the Tuk Tuk is not going to blow up.  But the gas has other ideas in store.

Apparently, while stopping at a roadside gasoline vendor to buy a Fanta bottle of fuel, Vantha was the victim of ‘bad gas.’ Gas mixed with water to make the supply go farther.  The result is an engine that begins to buck and vibrate like a Khmer line of adult sex toys.  The entire Tuk Tuk is made of metal, so the situation is quite amplified.  Karen, whose seat in the front happens to be directly ABOVE the engine is certainly getting the full effect.  She keeps shifting her position and finally tries to slouch down as far as possible with her weight on her legs to keep from having too much contact with the seat.  And we are going nowhere fast since the Tuk Tuk with its dodgy fuel is moving slower than a bicycle.  Which we know because they are passing us on the main road giving us annoyed looks.  We finally arrive at our destination and Karen staggers off and collapses onto a wooden bench.  Cher asks if she needs a cigarette as Vantha heads off in search of better gas.

Ah, just another day in Phnom Penh.  Cher is enjoying the balmy weather this time of year in Cambodia and delights in showing off her armpits to me.  “Look!” she crows.  “No sweat stains! I don’t have to change shirts and shower three times a day AND!” she stops to sniff herself.  “I actually smell pretty good!”  Words to live by.

It is our last day of relative leisure before the meetings and visits to other organizations that deal with handicap children start in earnest as part of the feasibility study I am doing for Safe Haven.  So we opted to spend time with the kids.  Cher is overly anxious to see Shrey Leap, the little talkative 6-year-old Khmer girl who ran away with her heart on the last visit.  Cher became her sponsor and is excited to be back and fulfilling her promise to visit again.  She is weighed down with coloring books, beads, crafts and a stuffed bunny.  We arrive at CCF 6 where Shrey Leap lives and goes to school.  It is a primary and kindergarten facility with over 100 children from Stung Meanchy.  They simply love visitors and mob Karen, Cher and I the second we arrive.  Shrey Leap appears and hugs Cher tightly, wiping tears from her eyes.  She clutches her bunny and that is the last I see of both of them for some time because 50 children pile on top of Cher and she disappears in a sea of little lice covered people.

My attention is otherwise occupied when I spot Theary –a little garbage picker I knew from Stung Meanchy who has apparently made it into school!  He comes over and I cover him in kisses, a bit dismayed to see he has not grown at ALL since I saw him over a year and a half ago.  He, however, loves school and proudly shows off his monkey dance skills with some friends.

Then remembering that he loves football, we dig up a ball which is mostly flat and worn through.  Making a mental note to buy a ball for them at market, we head outside.  Like the Pied Piper, I soon have attracted 15 little boys and within minutes two goals are set up and I am in the middle of the Kindergarten Stung Meancy World Cup.  I have taken off my shoes because they are all playing barefoot and I don’t want to step on them and the cement is HOT in the sun.  The boys are suitably impressed with my soccer skills and I manage to last until my team hits 10 points.  I call a Mercy Rule, but it is more mercy for my poor, overheated, huffing self than for the other team.  The kids ply me with water and help me practice my Khmer.  I think I get a glimpse of Cher under a pile of nearby children. Karen has about 7 kids gathered around her looking at photos.  But the visit cannot last forever and the kids reluctantly say goodbye, as they must get to afternoon class.  Shrey Leap hugs Cher tight and nods at the news we will be picking her up tomorrow to visit the market so she can go shopping for some new clothes.

In short order, we have driven over the Stung Meanchy Day Care which is just down the street.  We were hoping to see Channy.  Channy is the baby sister of Layseng, one of my documentary kids.  My honorary “niece” Christina has become her sponsor and we have pictures and presents for her.  Channy is Shrey Leap’s best friend and will also be coming to the market tomorrow with us.  But we’ve just missed her – she has started 1st grade and already left for school.  Navy – the head teacher is happy to see us again and we introduce her to Karen.  Navy is eager to show off the new medical building and talk to us about the new maternal care program that has been implemented.  We get a detailed tour, which is very informative and will help us shape some of the ideas for our own medical facility for Safe Haven.  I am excited to learn some of the young women at CCF 1 who are approaching 18 are being trained as medical aids and then being employed in the Maternal Care Program.  Cher has a great suggestion:  Safe Haven could use future CCF graduates who are trained in this field as well.  It is something to think about.

A group of dripping wet toddlers have just been scrubbed down and dressed back into their newly washed clothes in preparation for their return back home that afternoon to the village in the dump they call home.  They laugh and jump all over us.  Karen and I sit down and at least 7 kids, wet and lovable, all find spots on our laps.  They are needy in their desire for affection and we are happy to oblige.

As it is Karen’s last night – she has a flight to China at midnight – I take her and Cher to a traditional Khmer restaurant so we can have the best of local cuisine.  They both opted to NOT try to Stirred Fried Red Ants or Crispy Tarantulas in Lime and Chili Sauce but the meal is very enjoyable nonetheless.  Cher, who NEVER drinks, orders a Honey Martini with Fruit.  Now let me tell you about my sister drinking.  Normally, she may order a drink.  Then she takes one sip and decides she doesn’t like it.  Always.  However, tonight she takes a sip and grins. Then proceeds to toss the drink back like a frat boy on spring break.  She orders another.  I mentally cringe thinking someone is going to be buzzed.  Who knows?  If Vantha’s Tuk Tuk is free later – perhaps someone will get lucky tonight.

– Heather E. Connell

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

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