Physicists in Geneva working with the large Hadron Collider recently announced further studies of the elusive Higgs boson “God Particle” showed that when in motion from point A to B the particles seemed to actually arrive at their destination BEFORE they leave, opening up the tantalizing possibility of time travel or perhaps, a 5th dimension. Eight hours into a turbulent flight en route to Bangkok, every molecule in my body is heartily wishing to be a “God Particle” so this pesky 24 hours of travel to Cambodia can be over before it has even begun.
Unfortunately, I still have to live within Einstein’s boring old theory of relativity. And in this universe, some things are absolutely constant. For example: all sauces served with my airline meals inevitably wind up on my shirt.
The journey to Cambodia always starts and ends with a very long day. I have made this trip so often, that I take comfort and mark the passage of that day with familiar routines. One of which is still Thai Air’s inexplicit need to provide a virtual arsenal of stainless flatware with each meal. Since I don’t use three knives, three forks and two spoons on the ground, I’ve never seen the need to start 30,000 feet in the air. Unless of course, class warfare breaks out out between Economy and Business. In that case, I’ve got plenty of weapons to defend my turf in 20C. I’m not giving up that fully reclining seat for anything.
The day doesn’t get any shorter once I arrive in Bangkok and discover my flight to Cambodia is delayed by 2 hours. I’m irritated at the delay because at the end of the day, there is something important I have to do.
In 2006 when I first began filming Small Voices, thinking of Cambodia as my second home was not even a remote possibility on my horizon. I was used to experiencing some pretty long days with my crew. One in particular stands out in my memory. We had spent a long afternoon trying to interview street kids and had just gotten thrown out of W’aht Phnom park after refusing to pay off a group of police officers that tried to extort money from me. I was feeling pretty surly that things were not going according to plan and had grudgingly tramped across town to the National Museum to see if we could rustle up some poor street kids there without the police interference and the $500 “park permit.”
As the afternoon light began to wan, a filthy young beggar holding tight to his baby sister’s badly scarred hand became our last interview. I had no idea my life was about to change. In those moments, they were just a story for the camera. An accidental one since I wasn’t even suppose to be in that part of town. A 12 year old beggar who cared for his 3 year old sister, whom he had helped deliver when she was born on the sidewalk. She had scars from being dragged by a car the previous spring.
At the end of the day, we followed them “home” to a pallet outside a broken pagoda gate on the filthy sidewalks of Phnom Penh. There was something about these two children that captivated me. The boy’s name was Charam. He had never been to school but took great pride in being able to support and care for Lina, his baby sister. He wanted me to know he was not a thief. I wanted to tell their story and had no idea in that moment that their lives would weave themselves into the very fabric of my own. I promised to return the next day.
It is a promise I have continued to keep for 6 years.
I watched as Charam was accepted into an NGO school where he was finally safe and given the chance for something more. I also watched Lina grow up as a beggar on the streets on Phnom Penh. Every time I returned to Cambodia, the first thing I would do once I arrived at the end of the day was search for her, my rootless child of the streets. Anxiety filled escapades that did not always end successfully. However, she always had faith I would return and find her. Time was relative to her. Each time she was located and in my arms, I felt it was a promise fulfilled. Finally, when she was 7 years old, I found an NGO willing to take a chance on her and she began her own journey towards a better future. I also began another journey which tied me even closer to Cambodia when the life and death of another 3 year old named Sum Namg changed my life profoundly once again and inspired the Safe Haven Outreach program for kids with disabilities and medical needs.
Now my life in Cambodia is split in two and like an atom, it causes me to expend a LOT of energy between Phnom Penh, where the Small Voices documentary began and Siem Reap, where Safe Haven Outreach program ended up. As my plane finally descends into Phnom Penh, four months removed from my previous trip, my anxiety is back. Each trip is predictable in its unpredictability. It seems hard to believe I could top the car wreck, motto fires, surgery complications and human trafficking crisis from August but I’ve learned at the end of the day in Cambodia, anything is possible.
But right now, I have a promise to keep. I dump my stuff into my hotel room at The Quay, ring up my loyal driver Vantha and stagger with sheer exhaustion into his tuk tuk for the drive across town. Luckily, Vantha knows exactly where I need to be so I let me head loll back and try not to drool on the seats. In short order, we’ve pulled up near the crumbling gates of a sprawling, run down complex that houses a pagoda and school. I hop out of the tuk tuk. Exhaustion falls away and my old friend anxiety worms its way subtly into my stomach. Hundreds of kids mill about as the final bell rings. I’m concerned with finding only one.
“Hi Mak Tor!”
Lina happily greets me with a hug and a kiss and taking my hand, she rambles on about her day at school as we walk towards Aziza’s Place where she now lives. She doesn’t miss a beat, simply taking it in stride that I was waiting for her after school, as if there wasn’t a four month hiatus since I last was waiting in the school yard. For Lina, a child of the streets who rarely sees her parents, let alone her Mak Tor, on a regular basis, time is relative. I promised I would be back. I was there.
At the end of the day, that is all that matters.