Cher and I have become extremely popular at the Khmer Market. On our third trip there in less than 24 hours, the owners are practically rolling out a red carpet and the security guard is ready to invite us home to dinner. No surprise considering we have officially bought them out of baby formula stages 1 &2; powdered milk; diapers, bibs; baby spoons; wash clothes; baby biscuits and of course, Mountain Dew. We pile into our van from Shinta Mani and the driver heads on over to the orphanage. For the 45th time, he asks if today is the day we will go to the Angkor Temples.
We’ve become an oddity. Every day various Tuk Tuk and Taxi drivers cart us to markets, the pharmacy and of course, the orphanage and they just can’t seem to wrap their minds around the fact that given a choice between going and seeing the temples – one of the ancient wonders of the world or spending the day with 21 coughing, sneezing, germy little toddlers, we consistently keep picking the latter. “Maybe tomorrow?” They ask in an incredulous tone. “Tomorrow for Temple?” Unfortunately, this time we aren’t going because we are leaving tomorrow to head back to the States via a short overnight in Bangkok.
We arrive at the Missions of Charity with the intent of working on Sum Namg’s vocal exercises. However, when we arrive, we discover utter chaos. Apparently, the nuns spend most of Thursday praying and the children are left in the care of the 3 Khmer workers. All three of them are currently nowhere to be found – off cooking dinner for their little tribe of 21 toddlers. Poor, beleaguered Virginia is alone in the main room holding a new 4-month-old new arrival. Damien’s 4 year old twin sister, Delia, fresh from her latest round of rock throwing greets me with her traditionally high pitched screech and punches my leg with both her little hands. She grins demonically and scampers away. Baby Sum Namg is wailing from his crib. The Sound Of Sickness is everywhere as at least a dozen of the hacking children are engaged in a brisk game of Name That Respiratory Infection. Cher, with two or three dangling little accessories, wishes fervently for a can of disinfectant. She watches an aid sweep up the children’s toys with the same broom they use to sweep the kitchen floor. No wonder everyone is sick. We decide to give up on our scheduled exercises and pitch in to help Virginia. Cher scoops up Baby Sum Namg and sooths his crying. I grab Sum Namg out of his crib and sit him up on my lap. He watches the chaos around him. Delia whaps me in the face with a stuffed monkey. Nice.
13-year-old So Ka, a mentally disabled girl with CP can open the door, to our dismay. The most aggressive band of kids, ready to audition for Lord of The Flies, takes off for the playground, which is inviting set up on a large slab of cement. We are certain that someone is going to crack a skull under our watch and then we wonder who the hell would be watching them if we were not there. I glance over a seeing a peacefully praying nun and turn back in time to see Delia hurling fistfuls of sand at Sum Namg whom Cher was about to help down the slide. We decide to put him in the see saw instead.
Finally, it is time for their dinner and I spend a good fifteen minutes just chasing down little future repeat offenders who do not want to come inside. I tuck Delia under my arm and bring her protesting all the way into the orphanage expecting at any moment to see her head start twirling. We get them situated, kiss Sum Namg goodbye and stagger out completely exhausted.
We opted for a quick dip in the pool back at our hotel to try and cool off. Although I am a little concerned by the darkening sky and what sounds suspiciously like thunder, the poolside spa girls wave off our concerns and encourage us into the pool. It is absolute bliss, right up until the flash of lightening. Flexible is not an adjective I would use to describe my sister and I, but the aerobatic way we threw ourselves out of the pool was impressive if I do say so myself. It helped that neither of us wanted to touch the all-metal ladder on the way out.
All too soon, Friday morning rolled around and we found ourselves at the orphanage giving last minute notes, instructions and kisses. Sum Namg was happy to see us and I kissed him over and over to get him to smile that huge grin of his. The thought of leaving him physically hurts and there is no way to explain to him that I am leaving and won’t be back for five months. Since they are so uptight about 3oz liquids on your carry on, I suspect homeland security would be less than pleased to discover a five-year-old boy in my bag. Or 4-year-old boy, as it turns out. The nuns located his birth certificate and it turns out he is only 4 years old. Apparently, they were also counting his time in the womb as part of his age and Virginia tells us this is often the case. In fact, many of the children, lacking actually birth certificates, don’t have “official” birthdays or ages. When Khmer New year rolls around, everyone just says that they are a year older. They also dig up a photo of Sum Numg shortly after birth with his twin brother on a blanket with him. The difference is startling and heartbreaking. Sum Namg’s twin is robust and healthy. Next to him, Sum Namg is a wasted skeleton, a dusky blue hue to all his extremities. We make another discovery – Sum Namg contracted TB shortly after birth. It is a miracle our sweet guy survived at all. Perhaps the name Sum Namg, which means luck, is appropriate after all.
It is time to leave and there are tears all around. Virginia and Cher are embracing and Sister Soblia is giving us a blessing for safe travels. I reluctantly hand over Sum Namg to Cher so she can strap him back into his chair. I whisper in his ear, much as I did four months ago when I first stumbled upon him in the orphanage and promise him I will be back. He gives me his sweet smile. I’m just going to believe he knows what I mean.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.