For the third time in so many days, I am soaked to the bone. It’s not surprising considering it is rainy season in Cambodia and I have a habit of being far off the beaten path when the skies usually decide to open up. I’d consider it Mother Nature’s way of cleansing me if I hadn’t spent the last few years being warned about “poo water” in Phnom Pehn. Purell and I have a deep, meaningful relationship when I am here.
With only a few days left until I was due to leave for Siem Reap, the city in which the Safe Haven School will be based, I was frantically tying up loose ends in Phnom Penh. As it was the weekend, that meant checking in on the families of Layseng and Nghan, who live at Stung Meanchy village in the middle of the city’s garbage dump. Surprisingly, in all my years of working here in Cambodia, I have always managed to NOT be in the village when it is raining. I stocked up on cases of noodles for the families at the Russian Market under a clear, sunny blue sky and hopped in my trusty (and rusty) Tuk Tuk. Vantha started up the engine and we went sputtering off. Within moments, the blue sky vanished, thunder cracked and the rain sheeted down thickly. Drainage and Phnom Pehn have always had a troubled relationship and today was no exception. Within minutes, the streets flooded and the water was bumper deep. I was not unduly concerned and figured I was way better off than the poor moto drivers. Then Vantha paused at an intersection for so long I began to worry just a wee bit. He was carefully eyeballing the upcoming section of street and trying to determine if we actually had a chance of making it through. He apparently decided fortune favors the foolish and gunned it. Between the sideways rain, the cars also “gunning” it through the intersection and the general kick back from the Tuck Tuk tires, the noodles and I were not looking our best when we finally floated up to CCF to pick up the kids.
Layseng threw her arms around me. “You came!” Apparently, she figured the rain would keep me in the hotel and didn’t expect I was going to follow through with my promise to visit. I assured her nothing would keep me from the visit with her family and we piled into Vantha’s Tuk Tuk and putted off down the river. An hour and a half later, we’ve finally made it the five miles to Stung Meanchy. And I thought drainage was bad in the city. A virtual lake spreads out in the garbage and the path to the village is completely underwater. I can see Nghan’s mother waving to me enthusiastically on the other side. Layseng and Nghan are highly distressed. Not because their homes, located in a DUMP, are currently surrounded by a floating cesspool, but because I have to walk through it. I reassure them that I am not bothered at all and stride off towards the village. I figure it is like ripping off a Band-Aid. Better to do it quick. I make a mental note to buy new shoes and plunge in. The water is up to my calves and it is a squishy mess thick with rubbish. Nghan has my elbow and keeps apologizing. Layseng chimes in with “Heather, watch out for the leeches.” Excellent.
I’m caught in another downpour. This one is emotional. The kids are distressed because I am getting my shoes and pants muddy and wet. I am distressed because I am going to throw these shoes away and buy new ones, but they are going to sleep here tonight and put their own shoes right back on in the morning. You would think after five years, that nothing about Stung Meanchy and the life of the people who live here would shock or upset me. But the rain has come down and washes away any complacency at the situation.
We reach the other side and I’m thankfully leech free. Nghan’s mother grasps my hands in greeting and his father beams. They have something they want to show me. It’s a little store built onto the front of their hut. They show it off to me and Layseng translates. Apparently, they saved the money I gave them in January and invested it in starting a business. They had been waiting for me to return to visit so they could show me the results. I’m deeply touched and beyond impressed. Nghan’s father built the storefront out of recyclables he pulled out of the dump. All their ambition however has not been enough. Since they closed Stung Meanchy as a dump site and opened a new dump site 15 kilometers away, many of the families here have been evicted because they cannot afford to pay their $5 a month rent any longer and have no way to move to the new dump site. Although Nghan’s parents have been resourceful and started their store, there are not enough people left in the village with money to buy things from them. They are also being forced to leave and will be heading back to their homeland village. Nghan is distressed about this because it means his family will be hours away and he will not get to see them every weekend. But his family’s main priority is that he stays in school and gets an education. I have loaded my Ipad with photos and videos of Nghan and Layseng. Nghan built an amazing 3 D model of a house for a design class and his parents have never been able to see it. So I recorded him with the model while he explained how he came up with the design and built it. I play this video for them along with one of Nghan singing with his “rock band” at school and his parents are thrilled. By the time we say goodbye and head to Layseng’s, it has gotten fairly dark, which makes navigating the swampy path to her house a little trickier. Her father meets us halfway and helps escort us the rest of the way. Layseng’s house is up on stilts and we climb the ladder up into the living quarters. Half of the neighborhood is at our heels. I’ve got presents for Layseng’s little sister Jenny. My niece Christina is her sponsor and I’ve come not only with the gifts, but photos of Christina’s wedding. It is the hit of the night as I slideshow the photos on my Ipad and Layseng translates for everyone who is in the pictures. They have me play it twice.
The rain has stopped and my emotional storm has also subsided. I am here among family. We may live worlds apart but the bond we have forged is permanent. And I would swim across the garbage strewn pond for them if need be.
When it was time to head back and Layseng and Nghan decided to return with me. Since I only had one more day left before I headed for Siem Reap, they do not want to miss any time with me. My last day in Siem Reap was spent with my kids watching them compete in football matches on a muddy, overgrown field. It starts to rain again.
Let it rain.