After a brief internal debate weighing the side effects of the malaria pills against, say, actually getting malaria, I sallied forth from my humble abode where I’d been busily not packing and made my way over to the Healthy Traveler in Pasadena. Any hope I had of simply scampering in for my weird dreams in a bottle were dashed when the cheery doctor in charge perused my records and announced many of my vaccinations that I had gotten shot up with nearly 6 years ago when I started filming Small Voices were past their expiration date. Hurrah. “Let’s look at this together ” he said chummily as we reviewed my vaccination record. “Your Typhoid and Tetanus are due and you never had your 3rd round of Hepatitis A and B. Hmmmm, why did we do that?”
Well, I certainly knew. Six years ago when I was getting shot up like an addict to the tune of $1100 for all kinds of fun things like protection against Japanese Encephalitis, getting the 2nd round of the Hep A & B shots offered protection for five years. Even though the 3rd round would give me lifetime protection, I had already spent a LOT of money and at the time I was thinking five years was a long long time, I’d be done with film and how often would I be popping back to Cambodia anyway?
Famous last words.
With a sigh, I offered up my poor arm for a new round of shots and my poor wallet for the privilege. Good times. The doctor tried to scare another $300 out of me with a little bedtime horror story about rabies. I swore I’d stay away from foaming dogs and monkeys, grabbed my malaria pills and scurried out the door before he started pushing Yellow Fever.
Nearly 20 trips to Cambodia later, I’m once again back in my familiar routine of figuring out how to fit my clothing around the suitcase full of children’s chewable vitamins that customs in Cambodia never seems to care about. Well, to be fair, customs in Cambodia never really cares about much of anything, except for that one time I tried to bring some local wine home and the agent in charge was apparently having a dinner party that night and helped himself to one of my two bottles before sending me on my way.
This particular trip, which will last three weeks, is going to be an intense one. And if the turbulence on my flight wasn’t already keeping me awake, I suspect the sheer intensity of what I have on the agenda probably would. Safe Haven, the outreach program and future (hopefully) full time facility for kids with disabilities that was born out of the need to provide my beloved Sum Namg a safe place to live has been growing faster than we can keep up with it. I am mindful of the fact it has been nearly a year since Sum Namg died of a grand mal seizure hours after I tucked him into bed. I am wearing the same blue shirt I wore when I stood at the ceremonial cremation. It has become a security blanket to me. I wear it every time I travel to Cambodia. It makes me feel closer to Sum Namg and refocuses me on the project that continues in his memory.
We currently have 50 kids in our outreach program. Two of them, 7 year old Von Sao and 6 year old Veng Von, are about to have life changing orthopedic surgery. Another, sweet little 7 year old Lo Lith, is in the hospital fighting for his life, his heart and lungs weakened by a hole in his heart. The problems these three face are typical of our Safe Haven kids. In addition to their physical disabilities, nearly 70% of our kids also suffer from illness such as tuberculosis, typhoid and Hep A & B. There’s no Healthy Traveler clinic in the villages of Cambodia. We’ve just raised enough money to hire a full time physical therapist but already a sense of urgency tempers my excitement for this huge step forward for the outreach program. We need a full time nurse and the sooner we can afford to hire one, the better.
These are the things weighing on my mind as I sit on my flight to Bangkok. Appropriately, “At The End Of The Day” from Les Miserables is playing on my ITunes. But my thoughts are not all anxious. I’m also bursting with anticipation to see my Small Voices documentary kids. They have been overloading my email this last week bursting with excitement that I am “coming home.” Charam has informed me that three months is a VERY long time for me to be gone and he is excited to show me a surprise he has made for me. “I had to make it” he wrote, “because I could not buy something. But it is the best kind of surprise because I make it from my heart.” He also included a picture to show me how much he had grown in the last three months and asked if “I thought he was more handsome as he is now 15. “ His little sister Lina’s email was less eloquent but adorable.
hello mak tor i miss you mak tor so much more
i am good
i love your dog puppy
i am hurt my finger
but is ok good
i love this place
and you too
I am missing all my kids, but also am particularly excited to see Nghan, who I did not get to see last visit. His older brother had been shot in Stung Meanchy, the garbage dump where his family lives and Nghan had accompanied his mother back to the countryside for a family gathering in his brother’s place.
The full day it takes to get to Cambodia often makes me feel as if I have not only traveled through time but reality. As the plane descends towards Phnom Penh I feel a physical and emotional change come over me. The distance from Pasadena to Phnom Penh for me is counted in more than miles. For all the heartbreak here, there is also beauty and happiness. For every success, there have been setbacks. I have seen children I love thrive, grow and show the potential to be the change Cambodia needs and a child I love die from lack of treatment. Yet, it is both the success and the heartbreak that draws me back, an addiction I cannot shake.
It is a life time vaccination.