According to Wikipedia, the average weight of an American man AND woman is around 164-167.  I mentioned this because the 3’x5’ coffin style elevator at our hotel says it can hold 6 people and 400kg.  After barely fitting Cher, three Asian guys and myself in it yesterday, I am here to tell you there is no way 6 big old Americans could cram themselves into that space, let alone fall within the weight range without the chance of said elevator plunging to the ground.  Frankly, it is likely it could plunge to the ground just on principal.  Just one of the ways Stupid Western Foreigners can die in Cambodia.

These are my thoughts as Vantha’s Tuk Tuk stalls yet again in the middle of a busy intersection and Cher is resolutely NOT looking at oncoming traffic in an effort to pretend vehicles are not coming perilously close.  Then a guy on a moto swipes by us taking Vantha’s side mirror with him.  It’s not like Vantha actually uses the mirrors anyway.  Briefly, earlier in the day, we had entertained the notion of traveling to the “Shoting Rang” a tourist destination advertised on a white placard in Vantha’s Tuk Tuk.  I ask him what it is and he happily shows me a colorful photo of some white guy trying to shoot an AK 47 in the middle of a field.  The rifle nose is up in the air as bullets spray forth and the guy looks like he barely has control of the weapon.  Behind him is a Cambodian Guide with a big smile.  No doubt because he cannot believe a Stupid Western Foreigner paid him $40 for the privilege to almost blow himself up with a decrypted, rusting weapon from the 1940’s.  We decide to forgo the experience – not the least is that we don’t believe Vantha’s Tuk Tuk can actually drive OUT to the countryside.

Besides, we have a taxi waiting for us to take us to Kampot to visit Epic Arts. Epic Arts provides a range of professional dance, drama, music and art programs to people of all abilities and disabilities in order to promote empowerment, integration and acceptance for deaf and handicapped individuals.  We hop into the car for the three-hour drive out to Kampot.  Cher is a bit apprehensive because she has never ventured outside the city and is familiar with my horror stories of traveling the roads in Cambodia.  As we drive off, we discover only one seat belt buckle in the back in working.  I tell Cher to buckle up.  She refuses.  I demand she buckle up in my “big sister voice”.  She refuses in her petulant “little sister” voice.  I play my trump card and tell her if she doesn’t buckle up, I will tell her boss, who is not happy that she is here in Cambodia in the first place.  She pulls her ace in the hole and announces she’ll tell Mom.  I relent and tie our seat belts together and clip us in.

About an hour into the drive I look over to see Cher with her eyes clenched shut.  Normally my little sister, who gets car sick, must look out the front window while driving to help with feeling nauseous.  However, the amount of dust and debris kicking up from the road has completely obscured the view and it is impossible to see anything except the huge cloud of red dust that encases us.  As it turns out, the fact our driver is merrily cruising along with absolutely no visibility is more stomach turning than being carsick in general.  The dust settles for a moment and the driver swoops around a large backhoe and a ditch.  A marker shaped exactly like an American headstone states how many miles to our destination.  Lovely.  The driver stops three times to get out and slam the trunk, which keeps coming loose and bouncing open.  The roads are not paved in various places and liberally strewn with rocks and debris, which kick up and thump against the car in a steady rhythm.  I am horrified when a puppy appears out of the dust and a moto driver rolls right over it.  I wonder how the moto drivers can even breathe in the thick dust.  Even the crops on the sides of the road are covered in a heavy dusting of red clay.  We can taste and breathe it even inside the car and I am wishing I had not forgotten my inhaler back at the hotel. A sign on the back of a Tuk Tuk says “Breathe Right”.

We finally reach Epic Arts and meet Hannah, their executive director.  She pulls out some yoga mats and offers us tea and we sit down to hear how Epic Arts came into being.  She takes us on a tour and we watch a group of 8 deaf kids in dance class.  There is a young man with Down syndrome running about.  Epic Arts also runs a café in the center of the city.  Hannah tells us he just started hanging around the café and become a favorite of the patrons and staff. He eventually started coming to Epic Arts Peace classes for the mentally disabled and learned to use sign language to communicate.  We are impressed with Epic’s work with the disabled and looking forward to becoming partners with them when we open Safe Haven.  Hannah recommends several other people we should talk and has a great idea about visiting all the villages’ in/around Siem Reap where the school will be located in order to create a history of the children living with disabilities.  That way as we build the school, we can develop relationships with the families well in advance and know who are students are going to be and what challenges they will face prior to enrollment.  Epic keeps track of the disabled children in the villages around Kampot in a similar fashion.  It is an excellent idea and I intended to have Saloth help me implement it when I arrive in Siem Reap.  It is likely we will not be able to manage the census next week but we can plan it out and it looks like I will have to plan for a return to Cambodia in the next few months.

After lunch at Epic Arts Café, during which I am shocked to see Cher dipping her toast in the bowl of honey they have given us despite the fact there are bugs stuck in it, we hop back in our taxi, tie our seat belts together and begin the 3 hour drive back to Phnom Penh.  Though we would like to stay longer, I try to make it a rule to NOT drive long distances in the dark here.  While there are many ways for Stupid Western Foreigners to die – today I’d like to avoid one of them.

– Heather E. Connell

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

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