The Sen Sok Commune comprised of 16 villages is nearly 2 hours away and most of the villages with our Safe Haven kids are only accessible via our big motocross moto bikes. Unless it’s raining, in which case, we need a boat. With 16 kids to visit, Roza, Dr. Karen Froud, Pierre and I decided to get an early start. Karen had originally wanted to bring one of her speech and language graduate students from Columbia University who is here with her but we only own two of the larger motos capable of getting to where we’re going and frankly, I barely fit on the back of one. Normally, I am stuck sitting on the metal luggage rack but Roza, mindful of the long ride ahead, thoughtfully welding a seat extension on the back. What it makes up for in comfort, it serious lacks in stability. I’m perched up pretty high behind him and unless I want to use my knees against the exhaust pipe, I have no way to really grip the bike. But half of fun of field work is the nearly getting killed while getting there part.
40 minutes outside the city, I’m enjoying the gorgeous greens of the rice fields as they flash by and idly wondering why my calf is feeling so hot. I’m pretty close to said exhaust pipe so I am figuring it is a discomfort I’m going to have to get used to when I notice Roza is having trouble switching gears and I smell something burning. He pulls over and we both hop off the bike while Pierre and Karen pull up behind us. Flames are shooting out of the wheel well. Our brake has somehow snapped off track and is lodged against the wheel. The friction has caused the bike to catch on fire. I spin around and Roza grabs a bottle of water sticking out of the side of my pack and douses the flames. As it steams and hisses, Roza is dismayed to discover our impromptu fire extinguisher is a bottle of Evian.
“I cannot believe I used the expensive water. This cost $2! I should have used the cheap water.”
We try to use a rock and Pierre’s pen knife to jimmy the brake back into position, but apparently, none of us are MacGyver. We have no choice but to have the moto bike repaired. The only way to get it back to the shop is to ride it there. Pierre and Karen are instructed to ride behind and keep an eye out for flames. I climb back on board with the rest of the Evian water, $2 notwithstanding, clutch tightly in my hand in case I need to dump it on the back wheel mid trip. We head back into the city and I’m obsessed with wondering if I am about to find out if my Patagonia pants, in addition to being breathable, are also fire proof.
In short order, we are hanging out in the mechanic’s yard while they bang the moto bike with a mallet and rummage around a huge bucket looking for parts. An hour later, they pronounced it fixed. Roza takes it for a test spin and comes back complaining that the brake seems mushy. The mechanic responds by pouring gasoline over the whole back wheel well. Karen and I eyeball each other. Now, I am not a mechanic, but when one has just been on a moto bike that has CAUGHT FIRE I am not reassured that the best method of unsticking the brake is dousing it in flammable liquid. But what do I know?
Finally, we are back on the road to Sen Sok. The nicely paved roads leading out the city quickly give way to the rutted, red clay paths leading into the villages. Karen thinks it is great fun. I would agree, but I am far too busy trying not to get flung off the back of my perch.
The first two kids we do assessments on are both tough cases. The first boy is 4, autistic and has extremely limited sight and hearing. He cannot recognize his name or his parents and is on medication for seizures that is not overly effective. The next boy has severe Cerebral Palsy and is extremely spastic throughout his whole body. He is rail thin and we discover the only thing he eats is watered down rice because he can’t swallow anything else. Karen shows the mother how she must strain all the food the rest of the family eats- eggs, veggies, fish, rice- though a strainer so it is of a consistency he can eat, but with way more calories and nutrients than he is currently getting.
The next two kids are brother and sister, both of whom had bacterial meningitis as babies and suffered brain damage. They are 10 and 8 and are both extremely delayed cognitively. The mother, unsure how to deal with her children, has simply let them grow up and run wild. The boy is almost feral. He is gone all day wandering the countryside and returns to the hut only to grab food and water. He doesn’t speak, but makes noises to get what he wants. While we observe, he comes into the yard, grabs a large handful of rice and stuffs it into his mouth. He spots Karen’s water and hoots. He grabs it and runs off, drinking it down. We try to engage him in some play therapy but it is very hard to focus him. He cannot follow either simple direction or recognize single words. His sister simply watches us from a distance, to distrustful to come closer.
Our fifth case is a 7 year old girl with Down Syndrome who charms us all. While she is delayed, she shows a lot of potential for development. She happily plays with the toy cars we brought and shares out the snacks from the little bag I gave her with all the kids around her. In fact, half the village turned out to watch us work with her. There must have been 50 people in a semi circle around us as we sat on mats on the ground. We white women are apparently quite the tourist attraction.
The heat of the day was wearing on us all. Although we had put on sunscreen, both Karen and I were burning. We stopped at one of the village wells that CFI (Community First Initiatives), Safe Haven’s parent NGO has installed. I doused my extra shirt and used it to cover my burning shoulders. With the late afternoon bearing down on us, we quickly made our way to the last village of the day and saw three more children, only one of whom turned out to qualify for our Safe Haven outreach program. The other two were perfectly healthy (relatively speaking in Cambodia) children. Their parents had seen our previous visits in the village and wanted in on the white people help/action.
By the time we finished, it was nearing 5pm and we were anxious to head back home. We were concerned we were going to lose the light. The back roads are difficult to navigate in general. At night, they can become treacherous, especially if it starts raining. Plus, everyone’s cows and buffalos start heading home, adding to the obstacles. We take off at a decent clip hoping to make it back to the main paved road before nightfall.
Cow dodging becomes part of the commute. I am just thinking that the cow thing is not as bad as Roza made it out to be when a herd of water buffalo appears around the next bend and suddenly they are all running along with us. I am fatally certain one of them is either going to ram us or kick us. Roza does a masterful job of weaving in and out of them.
We make it to the paved road mostly unscathed and as night quickly falls, the dark clouds roll in. Within moments, a torrential downpour hits. Thunder rumbles and lightning starts crackling all around us. Roza pulls over and grabs the two ponchos we bought but the first one rips. Since he is driving and carrying the pack with the electronics in it, I insist he wears the poncho.
Was I really complaining about burning up earlier? Now the wind is whipping and I am soaked to the bone, teeth chattering as we creep cautiously along. Roza’s helmet doesn’t have a visor and his visual clarity is limited. The glass half full part of me is reasoning that the bike won’t be able to catch on fire again with all this rain. The glass half empty part of me is busy calculating the odds of getting struck by lightening while riding on a big, metal motorcycle.
We finally make it back to my hotel and I tumbled into my room, strip off my water soaked clothes and into a hot shower. Sometime later, Advil in hand, I am looking at photos of the day working with the kids and the beautiful countryside of Cambodia and thinking….
Life just doesn’t get better than this.