One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Posted on August 26, 2010

“You Back!  You Skinny! You Fat Before!”

As compliments go, I certainly have had better.  But that was the enthusiastic greeting upon arriving at my favorite Cambodian massage parlor.  As greetings go, it will certainly never replace “Hey, how are you?”  I suppose my trainer and yoga instructor will be pleased to know that the 20 lbs I lost since my last trip have not gone unnoticed.  But it was still a bit unnerving to have it loudly announced to the entire crowd of customers.    I smiled with as much grace as possible (really, I wasn’t THAT big) and requested a head and back massage, which at U and Me Spa, always for some reason includes a full body oil rub.

I was in dire need of a massage after a few days of triumphs and setbacks for Safe Haven.  One of the primary reasons for this trip was to interview potential project managers for our school.  I had been hoping to hire a project manager while in Cambodia and move forward on an important step: a census of all the handicap kids in the villages surrounding the provinces of Siem Reap, Kampong Kom and Preveher.  I feel it will be a vital part in knowing who our potential students are going to be and what their individuals needs are going to be so we can be fully prepared to help them.  It will also give us time to establish relationships with the families and built a level of confidence and trust.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that we were being assured proper candidates were being vetted and lined up by one of CFI’s own managers, when I arrived my business partners John and Pierre grimly informed me that not only had she gotten another job offer, but she had simply decided since her time was short she wasn’t going to bother following through on what we had requested.  Needless to say, this was a huge disappointment and I was feeling grouchy.  As all of the development costs for Safe Haven are coming out of my pocket – I was less than pleased to discover I had taken two weeks off work, flown to Cambodia and was incurring daily expenses and would not have a single interviewee ready to go.  John, Pierre and I brainstormed on what to do.  I decided to write a professional want ad and send it to my contact at the Cambodian Disabled Personal Organization and see if he had any qualified candidates who may be interested and we can interview on short notice.  It is extremely difficult for the handicap to get jobs and the CDPO just may have the ideal project manager – someone who can relate intimately to the struggles of these children and also provide to them a beacon of hope of what opportunity and education can do to change their lives.

After our meeting I walk outside to wait for my faithful Tuck Tuk driver Vantha.  Vantha has been my driver in Cambodia for 4.5 years and despite the fact his Tuck Tuk has always been a death trap ducted taped together, I remain loyal to him.  On this trip though I’ve been treated to a new ride. Vantha’s Tuk Tuk finally gave up for good.  In the past 3 days, Vantha has picked me up in no fewer than 4 different Tuk Tuk’s.  He cannot afford a new one so every time he has a fare, he borrows one from another driver and shares the profits.

A young street boy comes up to me while I am waiting.  He starts signing wildly and using my admittedly poor signing skills, I learn he is deaf and mute and thinks Pierre’s beard is very cool.  We both use finger spelling and he also writes words on my arm.  I miss my sister Cher who is fluent in sign language and would have been able to have a more meaningful conversation with him.  I wonder if he goes to school and suspect that he has.  There is a wonderful organization in Cambodia called Krousar Thmey, which is a school for deaf and blind children.  While they do not take students with other handicaps, they do amazing work with the deaf and blind and are at the forefront of developing the new Khmer sign language.  In fact, one of the “ups” of this trip has been a very successful meeting with one of their directors, Julian.  He was excited about the Safe Haven project and agreed our two organizations would be a natural partnership.  As Krousar has the only certification course to teach Khmer sign to educators, I really needed to make this partnership happen.  Julien whole-heartedly welcomed the prospect and now our Safe Haven teachers will be enrolled in their program.  After taking two steps back with the project manger fiasco, I feel this is a huge step forward.    Julien also gives me an Internet link so I can tap into their online Khmer sign dictionary educational videos, which are also in English so I can start working on improving my Khmer signing.

I take a break and go get my Small Voices documentary kids and take them on an outing to go swimming.  Spending time with them always helps erase any stress or problems I am grappling with because being around them and seeing the sheer joy as they experience every new thing we do to its fullest really puts things in perspective for me.  We pile into a Tuk Tuk and then make a quick pit stop at Olympic Stadium to pick up 7-year-old Lina.  She had a football match earlier that morning and comes running over to me looking adorable in her little uniform. “Mak Tor!” she shouts!  “We go swim!” She hops into my arms and announces she forget her swimsuit but “I wear underwear today so no problem.”

It is a joyous afternoon filled with splashing, cannonballs, ‘Marco, polo’ and swimming races.  Everyone is exhausted and Lina falls asleep in my lap on the Tuk Tuk ride back.  I am also feeling pretty exhausted but hustled to shower and change.  I am due to meet Pierre and John.  We have a meeting with a lawyer to start the paperwork to register Safe Haven as a Cambodian NGO. Although Safe Haven will fall under the non profit umbrella of CFI – John and Pierre’s NGO in the States, we feel it would be best for Safe Haven to have its own NGO status in Cambodia to allow me to be able to buy land.  The lawyer is very knowledgeable and willing to help.  However, he lets us know it will likely be 6 months before we will get approval on the paperwork unless we are willing to pay a $500 bribe to the government.  Lovely.  The lawyer says if we want to go this route, he will put us in touch with another who can handle it, as it is against his ethics to do such a thing.  We assure him we also want to do everything in a legal way and appreciate his morals.  While a 6 months wait will be another step back, it is one I am happy to take.  I’d rather Safe Haven not be built using bribes.

By the end of the evening, the sky has opened up and a tremendous thunderstorm rages over the city.  Lightening is cracking through the sky and the streets are already flooding.  Rather than wait for Vantha, we grab the 1st Tuk Tuk we see.  I’m not thrilled to be leaping into the back of a metal Tuk Tuk with an open container of fuel strapped to the side.  The driver doesn’t know where our hotel is so I spent the ride leaning over said container of fuel, getting soaked and giving him directions, all the while praying not to get struck by lightening.

Now THAT would certainly put me a step or two back.