Vantha’s wife is side seat driving from the back of his Tuk Tuk. He had wanted me to come to dinner at his house but my hectic schedule here didn’t leave me any time. His solution was simply to pick up his wife and 3 year old daughter and have them ride along in the Tuk Tuk as I went from place to place so his wife and I could talk instead. Of course, his wife speaks no English whatsoever and my Khmer is limited to saying hello, goodbye, no, yes, my name is Heather, and how are you. Basically I can have a meaningful conversation with Vantha’s 3 year old.
Vantha’s wife is not daunted, however. She continues to rattle off questions at me in Khmer, apparently hoping through sheer persistence that I will suddenly comprehend her cheerful inquiries. We develop a routine. She asks a question and I shake my head and point to Vantha. She then asks Vantha who turns around completely while driving the Tuk Tuk and translates the question for me. I try my best to answer while watching oncoming traffic hurtle towards us.
We were continuing the line of questioning in this manner when I was momentarily distracted by a woman in a white wedding dress daintily perched side saddle on a motto zipping by. Undeterred by both my distraction and complete lack of comprehension, Vantha’s wife was repeating her question to Vantha who was busy with his cell phone when we drifted to the left and side swiped a black sedan. The wheel hubs on the Tuk Tuk and the sedan locked together with a screech of metal.
Vantha’s wife was screeching too and for once, I am fairly certain I understood what she was hollering at her husband who was attempting to dislodge us by swerving the other way, all without putting away his cell phone. It is a measure of how immune I have become to the chaos of Cambodian traffic that I was less concerned about the black sedan hooked to the wheel hub to my left and more about whether Friend’s Restaurant would still have the spring rolls I loved on the menu for dinner once this little diversion was over and I got there.
A few moments later we were free. No pesky need to pull over and exchange information. Vantha’s Tuk Tuk has certainly seen worse days and the sedan now had some free orange pin stripping. Let this be a lesson kids. Never text, translate and Tuk Tuk.
It has been a busy couple of days. With all the meetings and work this week on the Safe Haven school both in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, I took Sunday for myself to spend with my Small Voices documentary kids. I picked up Lina at Aziza’s first and spent a few moments watching her delight in the sound story book and bubbles I had brought. But it was the sock monkey that was the big hit. After some serious contemplation in the Tuk Tuk on the way to CCF to pick up her brother Charam and the other kids, she announced she was going to name him Harry. Then in the next breathe she announced:
”Mak Tor, when I grow up, I want to be a doctor and help people in Africa.”
And I thought naming a sock monkey Harry was serious contemplation for my ambitious 7 year old. Born and raised as a street beggar on the streets on Phnom Penh, Lina never ceases to amaze me. Her unbreakable spirit, innate goodness and sheer force of will are traits she shares with her big brother Charam. I had known when I first met these siblings that there was something extraordinary about them. It has been a privilege and a blessing to watch them continue to grow into the amazing adults I know they will become.
Serious contemplation over, Lina sidles over towards me, kisses me and bats her eyes and asks for chocolate ice cream.
Within short order, I’ve piled all my kids into a Tuk Tuk and putted off to the mall. On the 4th floor of the mall there is an arcade and a roller blading rink, things out of reach in the childhoods of my doc kids. They are excited and waste little time hustling up the escalators to the rooftop. Well, everyone except Lyda, who steadfastly takes to the stairs and little Shrey Nik, Shrey Leap’s best friend who is petrified by this strange device and nearly falls down it trying to take a step on and back at the same time. Layseng snags her arm before she goes tumbling but she cuts her leg in the process. I scoop her up and carry her the rest of the way.
We spent the day playing arcade games. I give Meng Ly a lesson in how to play air hockey. The attendant recognizes Lina from her days on the street when she used to sneak into the arcade and pretend play on the machine. Now she has tokens in hand and promptly dumps tons of coins into a crane game and wins. Harry now has a friend.
Then the kids spot a 4D roller coaster simulator ride. Within minutes both the teens and the little ones are begging to be able to ride it. Who can resist? Certainly not me. I buy the tickets and watch on the screen outside the ride as they scream at the top of their lungs and get tossed around like rag dolls cracking each others skulls since the ride doesn’t actually have any working seat belts.
Finally we head to the roller blading rink. Within moments of entering the caged area where the roller blades are all strewn about for rental, I start channeling my sister Cher’s OCD about germs. The skates are smelly, decrypted and in a word, gross. Then there is the large barrel of reusable socks to put on before you put your feet into said nasty skates. I am mentally trying to prepare and cursing myself for forgetting the Purel on this trip. My feet are going to be in serious need of disinfecting.
Then I am saved. Shrey Leap cannot stand on the roller blades on her own and I magnanimously say I will forgo the roller blading in favor of making sure she doesn’t fall by walking along side her. Lyda and Layseng opt to get sodas and boy watch rather than skate. Leakhena and Meng Ly are about as good on the roller blades as Shrey Leap but they gamely shuffle along while kids who have never had to spend a day living and working in the dump show off their skills and flashy moves.
Lina of course straps on the skates and in moments is zipping around the rink. That kid can do ANYTHING.
Our busy day ends at our favorite Thai Cambodian restaurant where Lina and Shrey Leap define the laws of physics with the sheer amount of food they consume in proportion to their actually body size. Both fall into food comas at the table. Lina wakes up long enough to climb back aboard the Tuk Tuk and promptly lies down in Charam’s lap, Harry clutched tightly in her arms and falls back asleep.
The one disappointment to the day is Nghan is not able to join us. His mother had family obligations back in her home village and his older brother, still recovering from his gun shot wound in Stung Meanchy is unable to accompany her. Nghan has taken on that role and has left for the village. Because I was delayed arriving in Cambodia, I have missed him altogether. He will not return before I leave for Siem Reap and I am deeply saddened to miss him on this trip. August will not come soon enough.
I drop off my happy, tired brood and head back to my hotel. My short stay in Phnom Penh is coming to an end, as well as my play time. The there is a lot of work ahead for Safe Haven if we are to make this school a reality. I think of my doc kids and how far they have come once they were given the opportunity for education. There’s another group of kids waiting for that same chance to both strengthen their bodies weaken by disabilities and enrich their minds through education currently denied to them.
I don’t yet know their names but they are in my heart just the same.