My poor little sister Cher, fresh off her return flight from Russia was barely coherent Friday morning at my house as we frantically packed for our trip to Cambodia. After loudly complaining that it is unnatural and wrong for me to lack any product with a trace of caffeine, she begins the task of repacking our ridiculously overweight suitcases that are stuffed with toys and medical supplies.
It’s been only four months since I returned from my last trip to Cambodia when I happened into the orphanage in Siem Reap and into the life of 5 year old Sum Nang, the boy who has lived his whole short life on his back in a crib, unable to move on his own. I’ve been unable to move him out of my mind and utterly anxious to move forward with some solutions for altering the quality of his life. Communication has been limited these past few months. The nuns caring for him have taken a vow of poverty and I’ve had to rely strictly on hand written letters from the Mother Superior both for information and permission to return and help him. With permission finally in hand and a tentative diagnosis as to his condition, we’re ready to move forward.
For the first time I am returning to Cambodia with a family member in tow. My sister Cher is spending her only two weeks off dedicated to helping me with Sum Nang. We’ve determined that he likely suffers from Cerebral Palsy and there is no one better equipped to assess his condition and help train the nuns in his proper care and treatment that Cher is. For the past 15 years, she has been a full time caretaker/therapist for a young woman with CP and now she is using that wealth of knowledge to bring hope and help to a boy on the other side of the world. We are also bringing with us a wealth of equipment, including a wheelchair/stroller that will allow Sum Nang to be able to sit upright in the room with the other children for the first time.
Getting the wheelchair to Cambodia is another matter altogether. By the time she has traveled from Boston to LA and we have traveled from LA to Bangkok we have garnered more than our share of double takes and questions. Yes, yes – they know we need to gate check the chair, but where is the child? Part puzzlement and part suspicion -as if we perhaps have forgotten the child back in security or on the shuttle bus. Cher grouses we should have made a sign. I think it would be more fun to simply talk to the empty chair.
Our flight to Bangkok is mostly uneventful. There’s a nervous moment when they announce the bathrooms on the right side of the plane are busted and repairs will delay us for five hours if we are not willing to fly with left wing toilets only. Thankfully, no one objects, which could be because it is nearly midnight and everyone is dozing off in the gate area waiting to board. Poor Cher is really wiped out from jetlag so we upgrade to business class in order to try and get some sleep. It is partially successful. She sleeps like a baby and I white knuckle it through the turbulent flight over the Pacific. She does wake up long enough to knock my cognac, which I got for my nerves, right onto my lap. So now I am nervous AND smell like alcohol.
16.5 hrs later I stagger off the plane, which certainly seems fitting considering the au de cognac. Cher, fresh off her lengthy sleep and smuggled Mountain Dew is feeling fairly chipper. Right up until I let her know we have a 6-hour layover. Our transfer and check in only takes up .75 hrs of that so Cher, myself and our invisible child sally forth in search of distractions. Who knew that Boots Pharmacy could be such a tourist trap?
Finally, we are on the plane to Phnom Penh and as we approach the airport, a familiar feeling washes over me. I am at once both excited and nervous. Coming back to Cambodia always feels like a homecoming. I can’t wait to see the kids and worry about what state I might find them in. Linna in particular always weighs on my mind. Charam’s little sister is now 6 years old and last month she went missing from her home on the sidewalk after her mother Yorn let a stranger walk off with her. Thankfully, she was found the next night but in Cambodia, sex trafficking is an all to real issue. I can’t trust Yorn not to sell her and one of the main purposes for this trip is to enroll Linna in a full time live in school. Finding my little artful dodger on the streets of Phnom Penh is always a challenge and with the stakes higher than ever, I worry about finding her safe.
With that in mind, after a quick change of clothes at our hotel, Cher and I immediately set forth to try and find Linna. Four months ago, she and her mother were living on a sidewalk spot near the National Museum market. I’m distressed to discover that the area they were in has been razed and no street squatters are there at all. After a fruitless couple of hours wandering through market alleys of rotten meat, fish and dying chickens – Cher asks if I need some thread for my needle in the haystack. Jetlagged and frustrated, we also walk the riverfront hoping against hope but come up completely empty. It’s Sunday night and hundreds of families now crowd the riverside making the chances of spotting her even more difficult.
Tomorrow I head to CCF to visit the kids from my documentary. I hope Charam will have an idea where his sister may be. I hope Yorn hasn’t left the city. I hope she hasn’t let any other “strangers” borrow her. I hope that I find her. I hope.