There are days I step back from my life, take a look around and wonder how the hell I got here. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to be Houdini and would have my siblings tie me up and lock me in hand cuffs and I would try to escape. As an adult I find I often don’t take time to escape and recharge. (I should probably stick in a disclaimer that I also am not tied up and hand cuffed as a general rule either). I never would have imagined at (almost) 40 years old I would grow up to be a documentary film maker who is currently trying to build a school for children with complex disabilities in Cambodia. Building schools in developing countries is not exactly something I ever planned on or have any experience in doing. But like a lot of things I wind up doing in Cambodia and elsewhere in my life, I tend to just make it up as I go along. My family is fond of saying good luck seems to follow me though life since things tend to unexpectedly fall into my lap precisely when I need them. I believe if you are on a path you truly passionate about, then you come across people and things that help make that happen.
Sometimes that path can be completely unexpected and filled with obstacles. Both literally and figuratively. The literal was more on my mind as John, Pierre and I careened along the road to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh. I’ve made the drive many times and find it best to simply never look out the window. If a water buffalo is going to step out in front of the car and send me to the afterlife, I’d rather not see it coming. Though my obituary would certainly be unique.
My friend John is the founder of Community First Initiatives, a non profit in Cambodia focusing on programs for rural villages. Pierre is the executive director and both of them are good friends. They are my partners in the Safe Haven project. After wrapping up a variety of meetings in Phnom Penh, we were headed to our office in Siem Reap. For someone who spent the first 10 years in Los Angeles with her office crammed in the corner of a one bedroom apartment, it’s a little surreal to have an office in Cambodia.
‘How the hell did I get here?’ is what I was thinking rather uncharitably as I was sweltering in the heat in front of a sketchy roadside restaurant wondering where the hell my driver had wandered off too. John was off attempting to find a structure that could pass for a bathroom. Pierre was scanning a nearby crowd to see if he could spot our driver or perhaps someone who could hotwire our car in a pinch. We had pulled over at what was apparently a hot spot for stopover on our way out of Phnom Penh and without further ado or a word of notice, Khmer or otherwise, our driver had melted into a sea of people.
Leaving Phnom Penh is always hard because it means leaving my Small Voices documentary kids behind. This trip my time with them was even shorter due to the fact I was delayed in arriving after the unexpected emergency landing in Japan. And speaking of delays, this trip to Siem Reap is full of them. I usually have my hotel engage the car, but Pierre said he knew a guy who could arrange one cheaper. It doesn’t take us long to find out why. Our driver is part of a modern Pony Express. Traditional mail service doesn’t exist in many areas here so if you want to get something from A to B, you just stick it on any type of moving vehicle or animal headed in the direction you want it to go. We stopped 5 times to drop off stuff to guys randomly standing in remote spots along the way. Who knew if you wanted to ship a roll of chicken wire all you had to do was throw it in a car with three unsuspecting westerns footing the transporting bill?
We finally arrive in Siem Reap and I checked into my hotel feeling deeply melancholy. This trip to Siem Reap is the first time I have returned since my beloved Sum Namg died last August. For the first time, I will not unpack and hustle over to the Sisters Of Charity orphanage so I can scoop him up in my arms and see him break into his magnificent smile. I won’t feed him his dinner and then walk around the yard singing to him before putting him to bed.
I am thankful to have good friends with me and we are shortly joined by a third dear friend, Chitra, who picks us up and takes us to her house for dinner. At first we focus on business. For me the last couple of days of meetings for Safe Haven have been necessary and frustrating. I am trying to develop a relationship with the Ministry Of Education. I’m in a bit of a catch 22 with Safe Haven. My kids with disabilities are not allowed into school. But in Cambodia, an NGO (non profit) school cannot be accredited. The national curriculum at the pubic school is the only way a child can get a high school diploma or even be accepted into college. Most NGO’s send their kids to public school half time to fulfill this requirement and then supplement their kids education with an in house school. The kids are able to get a broad, more comprehensive education and still qualify for graduation and university. But what to do if the public schools won’t let in the kids to begin with? The majority of kids with disabilities are not allowed into public school. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get Safe Haven’s education program recognized by the government so our curriculum is sufficient. No luck thus far which hasn’t really helped my melancholy mood.
My dear friend Chitra recognizes my mood and knows the reason. She stood by my side in August after Sum Namg’s death. I mention that Friday would have been his 6th birthday and I would be lighting a candle for him at his burial site and a candle as well for his identical twin brother Chan who lives in Australia with his wonderful adoptive mother Noeleen, who is a friend of Chitra’s.
Unexpectedly, John pips up “Wait! You know Noeleen? How?” I am surprised as well. I respond back to John asking him how HE knows Noelene. And then a remarkable connection comes to light:
John came to Cambodia a number of years ago and wound up checking into the De La Paix hotel after visiting a commune at a friend’s behest to see the problems the local villagers were facing. Tired and dirty, he was greeted by a lovely woman named Noelene, who after hearing about his desire to get involved in helping Cambodia, introduced him to her friend Chitra and Chitra’s hotel, The Shinta Mani, which runs a hospitality program for street kids. John became friends with Chitra and began to get involved in non profit project in Cambodia.
A friend of John’s in Pasadena, knowing Cambodia was a new passion project of his, invited him to a photography exhibit of a documentary film maker who was currently making a film about Cambodian street and garbage dump kids. That film maker was me. John and I discovered we were going to be in Cambodia that summer at the same time and we met up there and became good friends. John then told me he was starting an NGO in Cambodia to provide assistance to rural villages in Siem Reap and asked me to come to Siem Reap to speak to his staff about using media for raising social awareness. I did and at John’s recommendation, stayed at The Shinta Mani, where I met Chitra. One afternoon, I asked Chitra, on a total whim, if there was an orphanage nearby and she had one of her staff members drop me off at the Sisters of Charity orphanage. I walked into the orphanage and into the life of my beautiful little Sum Namg, who was 3 years old at the time and living with severe Cerebral Palsy. My love for Sum Namg and desire to provide him with a better future lead to the creation of the Safe Haven school project, which was the project I was working on in August when my Sum Namg died of a seizure. I had known Sum Namg had an identical twin brother who had been adopted but didn’t know who had adopted him. During this time of grieving, Chitra connected me with Sum Namg’s brother Chan’s adoptive mother.
That woman turned out to be Noelene.
And that is how the hell I got here.