I’ve just come back into my hotel room jacked up like Cher on a 12 pack of Mountain Dew. It’s been a great morning. Normally, I take my Cambodian kids out shopping together for new clothes and lunch but I’ve decided this trip to focus more on spending time together and less on “presents.” The change of venue thrills the boys, for whom shopping with the girls is its own form of slow torture. Instead, we head to a nearby boutique villa for a morning of swimming in the pool. The hotel allows outsiders to use their facility as long as you buy breakfast or lunch. Considering I have 6 hungry teens and Lina, who frankly, EATS like a teen, I don’t think that will be a problem. Within moments of arriving, all the kids have changed into their swim clothes and are in the pool screaming with laughter. I am wearing a bathing suit, shorts and a tee shirt so as not to make the kids uncomfortable. Modesty here dictates that even a one-piece bathing suit is too risqué for them. Lina is giggling so loudly it is infectious and makes all of us laugh as well. The boys and I race from one end of the pool to the other and this old lady surprises them (and myself) by coming in 2nd in both races. I teach them to play chicken, which they think is great fun. Layseng is on my shoulders and nearly strangles me in an attempt to stay on. Management comes over and asks us to quiet down ‘just a little bit’ and I can’t help but grin and think we are just like any other noisy family of kids staying at the hotel – a far cry from the streets and the dumps where they grew up and survived.
The next new game I teach them is Marco Polo and they think is this a blast too. Lina is a bit of a give away because she can’t stop giggling so it makes the person carrying her (me) an easy mark. I toss her into Layseng’s arms just as Meng Ly comes towards to me to avoid detection. J
After a few hours of joyous fun, we tromp over to the patio tables and order some lunch. Meng Ly grabs my camera and the boys show off in front of the camera with silly poses with their towels. I make a mental note that swimming is the new standard activity over shopping for the foreseeable future. Lunch complete, the kids change into dry clothes and we are off on the next special stop of the day: University Of Phnom Penh.
My older kids have 2.5 years left of high school but I am constantly encouraging them to work toward college NOW. They are all capable of going on to higher education, but it can be a struggle. Meng Ly, who wants to be an architect, sees his CCF friends who are not on the university track learning trade skills and already employed at hotels and restaurants – living in shared apartments, driving their own motos and MOST importantly, already earning money to send home to their families. A top priority for all of these kids is to be able to send money home to support their families. Getting Meng Ly and the other teens to see the importance of sticking it out for another 6 or 7 years in school can be hard, even if it is something they want. That is what this field trip is about. It is highly successful. The teens are thrilled with the campus. We get visitor passes and explore the whole school. My CCF teacher/ chaperone for the day attends this school so she is a perfect guide. They marvel at the size of the library and the students studying together in the café over computers. Meng Ly is thrilled with the display cabinets showing the models made by the students in the engineering program. He poses next to them and next to the sign for the School Of Architecture and Design. Shyly, he comes up next to me and whispers in my ear. “Heather – may I really come here to study if I stay in school. May I?? “ I look him in the eye and promise if he studies hard and stays in high school, I will personally see he has the financial support to attend college. I tell him I understand it is hard when he wants to be supporting his family but the results of a college degree will do so much more for him AND his family in the long run. He has a big smile on his face. They all do. It is just a wonderful morning.
But now I have to leave and head to Siem Reap where my other little boy, Sum Namg, lives. I kiss all the kids goodbye and Lina cries. I promise I will be back soon and head back to the hotel to get Cher, who was still feeling the effects of the dodgy water. Our “taxi” is waiting to take us to Siem Reap. We get settled in and discover, yet again, only one working seat belt. Despite the assurances that our driver “be so safe” on the road, I am not taking any chances, so I tie Cher and I together once again in the back. And we are off – careening down the highway to Siem Reap at a teeth rattling 70 miles per hour. Which is way faster than it seems when the road is paved with water buffalo. More than once, the car slams to a stop to avoid the roaming cattle. A one point, a tour bus, several tuk tuks, our taxi and two cows are all converging on a tiny bridge and no one wants to give the right of way. Cher slams her eyes shut and groans. Somehow we swerve around the whole mess and make it to the other side. The obstacle course is made more challenging by the fact the driver doesn’t like sunlight coming into the car and has completely blocked off the back window and all the side windows, leaving only the windshield as a visual reference. Cher and I watch videos on my computer to try and distract ourselves as we kamikaze toward Siem Reap.
I’ll say this for our driver – he makes excellent time and we get to Siem Reap slightly earlier than expected. Even better, we get there alive and in one piece. And just in time to meet my friends and partners in the Safe Haven school project, Hasan and Pierre, for dinner. Hasan takes us out to a very nice restaurant for dinner and for a moment, it seems like we might have transported right out of Cambodia. Right up until the light fixture above begins to leak piping hot water onto Pierre’s head in a steady stream. He quickly moves to the other side but as we continue our dinner, the water leakage increases until it is liberally splashing the table. Hasan uses all of our napkins to block the spread of the steaming water and we decide to call it a night.
The next morning Cher and I can hardly wait for 9 am so we can head to the Sisters Of Charity orphanage to see our little Sum Namg. We jostle each other getting through the gates and greet the sisters trying not to seem too impatient. Pleasantries over, we spot our little guy in his crib and scoop him up, covering him in kisses. He is still ridiculously skinny but he has grown in the last 5 months. A good sign indicating he has been getting much need nutrition. This is reinforced when the helpers bring over his breakfast for us to feed him and it is the exact breakfast we taught them to make in August – a smooth blended mix of honey, bananas, water and dried milk. Cher spends some time adjusting his chair for his new height and I take advantage and sit on the floor just cuddling him.
The orphanage is a busy place hosting a group of Korean University Students who are helping out for the day playing with the 24 toddlers that live there. One of the students has a guitar and plays a Khmer dance song that the kids love. We put Sum Namg in his chair and help him move his arms to the music so he can participate. He loves it.
Cher spends time doing vocal and physical therapy with him and by the end of the day, he is tired from all his activities and we are in need of a massage, the effects of our crazy car ride catching up with us. We meet up with Lina, a young woman from Sweden I met in Phnom Penh. She showed up at CCF on Thursday looking for a place to volunteer. Since it was a holiday, no one was around, except me – I was playing football with the boys in the courtyard. She wasn’t sure she was going to stay in Phnom Penh or go to Siem Reap. I shamelessly plugged our handicap project and convinced her to volunteer for us instead. J Over dinner, we talk about the project and she is very excited to be involved. We make plans to meet in the morning to head over to Sisters Of Charity.
After a relaxing back and neck massage- which for some odd reason included being slathered ALL over in oil and then given a sponge bath, it’s time to head back to the hotel and end our first full day in Siem Reap. Round two in Cambodia begins.
– Heather E. Connell
Visit the Small Voices website for photos from Heather’s travels.