After a good sulk in my room over my burnt feet, I realized my pity party was kinda boring all on my own and decided I needed some wine and friends to liven the whole thing up. So I gauzed up my feet, stuffed them into my sneakers and attempted to waltz across the lobby of The Quay hotel as normally as possible. The overly helpful staff is always looking for a reason to pounce and I wanted avoid any scenes in which I had to explain why I was walking funny. Unfortunately, my attempts to walk normally just resulted in my looking like I had just ingested some dodgy water and was about to keel over from cramps. The staff materialized from all sides. I was surprised one didn’t swoop in from the ceiling all Mission Impossible. “Madame, are you hurt? Madame, please sit down! Madame, do you need help?” Sadly, none of them said, “Madame, here is a shot of whiskey” So I gamely waved them off , insisted I was just fine and plowed out the door towards Pop’s, a favorite Italian restaurant of mine on the riverfront where my friends Allie, Paula and Pinot Noir would be waiting to for me.
Although it was early evening, the sun was still hot enough to fry a foot on the sidewalk. It is rainy season in Cambodia right now but thus far on this trip, the rain has been scarce. Normally, I am not a fan of downpours in Phnom Penh. The drainage in the city is pretty bad. Toss in the pollution and garbage on the street and you get a noxious mix of nastiness that floods the area. But the heat has been oppressive and I’d be willing to put up with a river of poo water just for a little relief.
Within short order, I’ve nuzzled up to a nice glass of Pinot with no idea that 6 hours north of me, the van containing my project manager Roza and my Safe Haven kids and families returning to their villages after our week at the Children’s Surgical Center has just been caught in a massive rainstorm. Night has fallen and the dirt road the van is traveling on has become a dangerous slick of thick mud and visibility has all but disappeared. The driver overcompensates trying to control the sliding van and loses control. The van fish tails, flips and crashes into a ditch.
My phone rings….
Since my arrival 7 days ago, my dance card has been pretty full of crisis. With Lo Lith hovering between life and death due to the hole in his heart, to the complications with Sao and Von’s surgeries to Charam’s missing mother it has seemed like one of the longest weeks of my life. Paul may have said to the Corinthians God only gives you what you can handle, but I’d surely like to put in a request to slow it down a mite this week.
Along with a heartfelt prayer of thanks….bumped, bruised and terrified out of their minds, my Safe Haven kids and crew emerge from the wreck of the van mostly physically unscathed. Emotionally is another matter altogether. The families were terrified of riding in a car just on general principal and had not been looking forward to the long drive back. The crash has completely unnerved them. Roza’s report on the condition of the van is not promising. “It’s beat to pieces.” I’m so grateful everyone is okay, but my heart sinks at this piece of news. We borrowed this van in order to have a way to transport our kids to surgery because we have not yet been able to raise enough money to buy our own truck. Now we not only don’t have our own truck, we have totaled someone else’s vehicle. There’s a lot of geckos in Cambodia. Geico? Not so much.
With this eventful week rolling to a close, I was looking forward to a crisis free trip with Allie and Paula to Prech Dach village in Kandal province to visit Meng Ly’s family. Meng Ly, one of my documentary kids, has been sponsored by Paula for the last 6 years and while she has visited Cambodia before, Paula has never ventured out into the villages or met Meng Ly’s family. The outing was something we were all looking forward too, though Paula was a little apprehensive about the drive. As I had been to Prech Dach six years ago while filming Small Voices she had asked me what it was like. I told her truthfully (and a little gleefully, I will admit) about the twisted, pitted dirt path into the village and the sketchy wood bridge with gaping holes leading to his house. It had been raining on my visit there and our production van also went off the road, though we were able to get a bunch of villagers to push it back up the embankment where it had slid down into a tree.
Paula apparently has better Karma than I. Because we got to Meng Ly’s in record time courtesy of a freshly paved road and a brand new metal bridge. Nice to see the government is putting some effort in improvements. His family is thrilled with our arrival and immediately begins to prepare a big meal for us. Meng Ly’s father chops up a whole chicken into little bits, which certainly saves time on the whole skinning, boning thing. They dump it into a large pot over the fire and Meng Ly’s mother bustles around preparing vegetables.
In case we are hungry while waiting, one of the brothers pops across the road to buy us some snacks to tide us over. He comes back with a bag of revolting looking things that look suspiciously like leeches and a deep fried bat, nicely accompanied with a pinch of salt and a half a lime. Because, if you are going to indulge in a little flying mammal, a refreshing splash of citrus makes all the difference.
Now I have eaten a lot of revolting things in Cambodia in my day, but I cannot bring myself to try the bat. As a caver, I have an affinity for bats. I even have one tattooed on my back. They are fascinating creatures and I opt to simply take the boys word for it that they are also tasty. Having used up all my excuses on the bat, I find myself holding the revolting leech like thingy. Never have I been so grateful to discover it was actually not a leech, but something Meng Ly compared to a carrot. I popped it in my mouth. I don’t know what kind of carrots that boy has been exposed to, but carrots are crunchy, yummy, tasty goodness. Leech like carrot thing? Not the same. Perhaps I was too hasty passing up the bat.
With the visit over, we headed back out of Prech Dach towards Phnom Penh. The boys dozed in the back seat, all securely buckled in at our insistence, since seat belt wearing is not a common practice. In fact, landing a vehicle which actually has working seat belts is pretty rare. But after the craziness of the week, why take chances?
Life proved itself fragile just a few more miles down the road. A large group, perhaps 40 people strong were gathered in a loose semi circle on the left side of the road. It was a sight that was all too familiar and both Allie and I murmured accident ahead just as Paula asked what was going on. Accidents along the roads of Cambodia where trucks, mottos, tuk tuk’s, cattle and carts via for domination with low regard to rules or safety are common and always draw a crowd of silent observers. We edge past the group in our van. The tangled, crushed remains of a moto somewhat prepares me for the end result. The bloody body of a man is sprawled in the road while the crowd circles him in silent vigil.
Paula wants to know if we should stop and call for help. I totally understand her reaction because it was an exact reflection of how I reacted the first time I saw an accident of this nature on the back roads of Cambodia. Both Allie and I reply that we cannot stop. Paula reiterates her thoughts that we should call for help. The silence hangs thick in the car for a moment while I struggle with stating the reality. Allie does it for me.
“There is no one to call.”
Even if we wanted to, there is no 911 or emergency services to ring on our cell phone. Nor do we have the skills or the equipment to save that man, if he was even still alive. Paula sits back. “So they just all stand there until he dies?” she asks in an incredulous voice.
Our silence is her answer. Deep in our own thoughts a few miles down the road, a boy suddenly, inexplicitly dashes out into the road in front of our van. The driver bites off a curse and slams on the brakes. Everyone is thrown forward – thank God for those seat belts- and the van screeches to a halt, narrowly missing the kid as he runs to the other side of the road. Everyone’s hearts are hammering in their throats. Paula shakily commends the driver on his reflexes and we all take a deep breath.
I’ll take it.