After a good night’s sleep and a $17 two hour Khmer massage I sallied forth from The Quay hotel feeling refreshed, restored and quite possibly, in a relationship with my massage therapist.
While it is very nice to be able to have a two hour massage for less than the price of a Starbucks coffee, said massages at the U and Me spa in Phnom Penh always seem to hover on the verge of being entirely inappropriate. The overly friendly staff is always very happy to see me and always asks about my sister Cher who has been to Cambodia with me on occasion. (That is not the inappropriate part). The massages are done with the perfect amount of pressure in a lovely private room with mood music playing. But those hands often wander more than perilously close to areas that give a whole new meaning to “mood music.”
I thank my massage therapist, wander back out on the street and wonder, not for the first time, if the word for massage in Khmer translates to “foreplay” in English.
The riverfront is bustling with people. In the last six years, I have seen a lot of change come to Phnom Penh. Thanks to foreign investment the riverfront is now beautifully landscaped and odd outdoor exercise contraptions are scattered about like a Khmer version of Muscle Beach. It has become a playground for the barefoot street children who split their time between hustling dollars from tourists and swinging gleefully from the bars. The landscape may be improved but for many, it is just a prettier place to curl up on the grass at night.
The enterprising group of tuk tuk and motto drivers outside my hotel are also hard at work hustling up business. The guys all know me and know Vantha is my driver but it doesn’t stop them from attempting to lure my business away. I’m a pretty steady paycheck in Phnom Penh.
While I wait for Vantha, I idly tell them that I am looking to buy a truck for the Safe Haven program. Instantly, everyone becomes a used car salesman. Even the guy on the corner selling sunglasses. Whoever this “guy” is that everyone knows can help me with my vehicle needs is certainly quite the success. Vantha finally arrives and I do a little hustling myself right into his Tuk Tuk before all the wheeling and dealing on my behalf results in a souped up Tuk Tuk with the words “Jeep” spray-painted on the side.
Trucks are on my mind as we chug along to Aziza’s Place to see Lina. Safe Haven is still very much a grassroots program and raising money in this economy has been a struggle month to month. A truck has seemed like a luxury when most of our funds go directly into paying for the medical and physical therapy needs of our kids. For the last year, our primary mode of transportation into the villages has been motor cross style moto bikes which take an absolute beating on the back roads into Sen Sok Commune. It’s impossible to transport sick or surgery recovering children on the back of one of these contraptions. Most of the time I am on one, I am fairly certain I will wind up in need of a little medical or surgical intervention myself. And when the rainy season kicks up, the roads become dangerous and nearly impassable, even when we borrow or rent cars. A fact that we learned after the van carrying 7 year old Sao and 6 year old Von and their parents flipped and crashed in a ditch on the way back from the Children’s Surgical Center during a rainstorm. Thankfully, while everyone was alright, it really underscored our need for a 4 wheel drive.
Vantha comes to a stop at the one of the few intersections where people actually heed the streetlights. I’m mentally shopping when a nicely appointment Toyota truck crew cab pulls up next to me with its NGO logo blazed on the side along with cartoon depictions of happy children with balloons. The name of the organization is in capitol letters: C.R.E.P.O. Now I may be cynical, but I would be more than a little suspicious of a non profit for kids with CREPO for an acronym. Then I am a little jealous. How did they raise money for such a swanky truck with a name like that??
After a quick stop at Aziza’s to see my sweet Lina in karate class, I briefly speak with one of Aziza’s directors, Socheat, about taking Lina out for pizza Saturday. I also ask him for advice on the truck and he also knows a guy, but I feel a LOT more confident and comfortable with his guy than with the Tuk Tuk crowd. He promises to check out some leads for me and after giving Lina a quick kiss goodbye, I head over to the CCF school where my other 6 documentary kids: Meng Ly, Leakhena; Layseng; Lyda, Nghan and Charam live. Due to my delayed flight, I had not been able to see them when I first arrived and I’m anxious to get there. Six years ago, ranging in age from 10-12, they were a farmer’s son; a girl abandoned by her parents in a pagoda, three Stung Meanchy children who picked garbage to survive and a street beggar. Now all of them (except Lyda with her fused spine) are taller than me and talking about university. They are survivors. I am unbearably proud of all of them and I miss them dreadfully when I am in the States.
Within minutes of my arrival, they are already trying to negotiate my return. Nghan has a calendar, Lyda a pencil and Leakhena muses over the upcoming months. I try to point out I am sitting there right NOW but they are far too concerned with pinning me down to THEN. I assure them I will be back in May and August but will not commit to specific dates. They mark up the calendar and I know the next several months of emails from all of them will be a countdown until I return even though I haven’t left yet. Those pleasantries out of the way, Nhgan and Layseng extract one more promise that I will be picking them up Saturday to take them home to Stung Meanchy, the city garage dump where their families still live, for a visit. Layseng has a new nephew and her mother has made ansom cake for my arrival.
Then the boys and I head outside for a little game of volleyball in the blazing Cambodian sun. The boys complain about how hot it is. When Cambodians complain about the heat, white New England girls start to worry.
I know a 40 year old woman with heat stroke and cramped muscles in her future.
Perhaps another inappropriate massage will be in order.