Traveling to Siem Reap by taxi is a lot like being in a live version of an arcade driving game. You are not obligated to ever stay on one side of the road. In fact, swerving all over is a must for avoiding any number of obstacles that might pop up along the way: Water buffalo, rickshaws, mottos or pick up trucks piled high with people. And just like an old arcade game, if you crash your car into any obstacles, there is a good chance it will explode in a massive fireball since it is running off of a modified tank of propane in the trunk. I’m always a bit nervous when we stop for fuel, pop the trunk and fill it up with said propane. Mostly because I still haven’t figured out why this act requires two men to also shake the car as hard as possible from side to side. Frankly, I probably don’t want to know the answer to that question.
As always, I’m deeply grateful to arrive in Siem Reap in one piece. Although I wish I had more time in Phnon Penh with my Small Voices documentary kids, I’ve been anxious to get back to Siem Reap to meet up with my Safe Haven staff and jump back into action. Normally, I try to be in Cambodia three times a year, but I have not been back since last May. A car wreck in August effectively put me out of commission and I had to cancel my return to Cambodia. While my staff and the Safe Haven kids have been accomplishing amazing milestones since my last trip, there are a host of administrative issues I need to deal with in person. Plus I am hauling a huge amount of much needed medical supplies that our amazing friends, family and supporters have donated for our kids. My taxi driver pulls up in front of the Seven Candles Guesthouse which is also home to the Ponheary Ly Foundation, a wonderful local NGO that provides impoverished village children the opportunity to have access to the same quality of education as their urban counterparts. My friend and Safe Haven nurse, Jess Whitney, is friends with Ponheary Ly’s president, Lori, who has graciously helped to facilitate my stay here via email introductions with the Seven Candles management. A young Cambodian man at the front desk insists on carrying my bags up the stairs. I’m fairly certain by the bulging veins in his forehead as he heaves up the army duffle bag containing 100 lbs of vitamins that he was probably rethinking his gallant offer. It takes three staff plus myself to lug the luggage up the stairs. We pass a group of Expats smoking on a patio on the 2nd floor who remark that I really didn’t need to bring that many suitcases. I thought about stopping to explain I wasn’t a clothes diva but I decided to save all my energy for the next flight of stairs.
After the bags are safely tucked into the room, I saunter up to the rooftop lounge to meet Jess. I begin to suspect she is on cozy terms with the staff when she waltzes into the room, walks behind the bar and helps herself to two beers from the refrigerator. I’m pleased to see her and not just because she is handing me a cold, frosty beer. Jess has been an invaluable member of the Safe Haven team ever since I was introduced to her by a mutual friend at a Collaboration Cambodia meeting. We have a mini catch up, both of us excited about the next couple of weeks which will include not only our work out in the field, but meetings with two new potential staff members and a Safe Haven fund raiser. In fact, the Safe Haven staff is already one person larger than when I left it in May. Marguerite McCann, an occupational therapist from Essex, is currently volunteering her time and skills with our Safe Haven kids and I have been looking forward to finally meeting her in person.
I get a chance to do just that early Monday morning at our staff meeting. Jess has offered to hold the meeting on her balcony. Our tiny two room office is overflowing with supplies and we have completely outgrown the space. One of the things on my To Do list is to find a house to rent that we can use both as an office and I can use as a residence when I am here. Jess, Roza, my project manager and Pheakdey, my physical therapist, are all hoping for something on the 1st floor. Our current office is on the 3rd floor and everyone would be happy to not have to haul supplies up and down the narrow staircase in the blazing heat. Jess has a friend who rents a house and lives on the 2nd floor but is looking to rent out the 1st floor. We make plans to look at it later in the day. Meanwhile, we get down to the business of planning our schedule for the next two weeks. It doesn’t take long to fill each day with hospital and home health visits, starting with a trip to Handicap International that very afternoon to see Sao.
8 year old Sao has been with Safe Haven since the beginning of the program back in late 2009, when it was just Roza and myself going out into the villages and trying to establish relationships with the village chiefs and families who had children with complex disabilities and medical issues. She was a shy little girl who suffered from bilateral club feet that were so turned inward, she stood on her ankle bones. Unable to walk anything more than short distances, she wasn’t able to attend school. Roza spent months building up trust and a relationship with Sao’s family. By the time our team grew to include Jess and Pheakdey, we had developed a partnership with the Children’s Surgical Center in Phnom Penh and arranged to have Sao brought there to have multiple surgeries to correct her feet. It was a long journey spanning nearly two years through the surgeries, the continuous follow up care Safe Haven provided out in her village and the subsequent months of physical therapy and brace fittings to bring Sao to where she is today: Walking completely flat footed without any pain and attending school full time.
Pheakdey, Safe Haven’s physical therapist, came to us from a previous job at Handicap International and she has been instrumental in facilitating a relationship with the local Khmer branch of the organization. They help provide our Safe Haven kids with wheelchairs, walkers and other assistive devices for a small fee. Sao is there this week with Pheakdey to get fitted for a new set of braces. Roza and I join them in the large outdoor room which is filled with all kinds of therapeutic obstacles. Sao is navigating her way across a balance beam when we arrive and she is quick to run over, jump in my arms and give me a hug. Just the fact that she can run gives me chills. In my minds eye I can still see the little girl who wouldn’t smile and shuffled painfully off to the side the first time I saw her. Now she flashes me a big smile and shows off her balancing skills by walking across a bridge made up of swinging planks. She scoots up one side and down the other and then poses for me at the end with a grin. I give her a high five and then she is off and running again.
She has a lot more obstacles she wants to conquer.