Although the flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap is only an hour – the distance traveled emotionally is a distance that is hard to quantify. Already the plush luxury of the Shangri La Hotel is fading and ready to take up permanent residence during my stay in Cambodia in that cozy little nook in my brain called Western Privilege Guilt. John and I take a taxi to our hotel, The Shinta Mani. It is by far the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in Cambodia. The hotel manager welcomes John warmly – she has been acting as a coordinator for him during the last year as he prepares to launch his new non-profit venture CFI or Community and Family Initiatives. The goal of the program is to change the lives of impoverished families by giving them the means to become self sufficient through improved access to farming, health care, education and business , such as village production of mosquito nets. I’ve come to Siem Reap with John as a media consultant for the project before I head to Phnom Penh in a few days to visit the kids from my last documentary Small Voices (www.smallvoicesmovie.com) Almost immediately, I realize this is no ordinary hotel. Profits from the hotel fund an attached trade school, which is currently training 30 impoverished students in culinary arts and business management. After a rigorous 15 month training program, the hotel then provides job placement and lifetime support to each student and his/her family. If they ever lose their job for any reason, the hotel will take them back under their wing and provide for them until another type of employment can be found. I’m deeply impressed with the tour of the trade school and the fact that the benefits stemming from the cost of my room have lasting effects long after I am gone.
It isn’t long before John and I have piled into the hotel’s van along with Trina, our Cambodian guide for a quick trip out to the village to check on a family who had a well installed about six months ago. Rainy season has passed and the evidence of this clouds up around us as we bounce down the dusty, dry tracks that are so whimsically referred to as a ‘road’. Cambodia is not much for traffic laws or anything so mundane as ‘right of way’ so its always an adventure vying for space along with moto bikes, bicycles, water buffalo and naked village children. I stare out the window at the familiar vestige of ramshackle huts, sparse, dead crops, starving livestock and scores of aimless children of all ages.
When we finally arrive at our destination, it doesn’t take us long to find out that the fortunes of the family, despite the well, have nose-dived and not for the better. The mother was taken away to a hospital in the city several months before with TB in her lungs and bones. For the last 8 weeks, her 13-year-old daughter has been living alone on their tiny farm plot caring for her 8 year old brother and 5-year-old sister. The father died several years ago and the children have not seen their mother since she went to the hospital, over an hour away by car. They are gathered around a large outdoor cooking pot tossing in ears of corn from their small crop. The kids are shy and at once fascinated with John and I. I take some digital pictures and then show them to the kids. They delight in seeing themselves appear each time on the view finder and the 13 year old de facto mother is a gracious hostess, bring John and I ears of corn steaming from the pot. Her brother’s lungs sound like a diesel in low gear. He’s got a deep, rumbling cough. Remembering that we had passed a village health clinic about 2 miles back, we ask Trina if we can bring the boy there. It takes some time to try and explain our intentions to the children. Their language skills are limited at best – none of them are in school. Thankfully, a young woman walks up to the property – it is their mother’s sister. She stops in occasionally to check on the children but she has her own family down the road she is struggling to care for. We convince her to let us take the boy to the clinic.
When we arrive, we discover we are not the only ones with a sick child on our hands. A young mother is sitting in the blazing sun on the steps holding a baby with an infected cleft lip and her arms around a young girl. She has taken off the girl’s shirt and dunked it in water to try and bring down her daughters fever. The little girl’s eyes glitter feverishly and her deep cough mirrors our own little charge. They have been sitting on those steps in the sun for over four hours. The clinic is empty and there is no indication when, if ever, anyone is coming back. I try the doors and wander inside the deserted building. There is little in the way of supplies and it appears to have been deserted some time ago.
As we stand next to the van with three sick kids, one crying aunt and a defeated looking young mother who is old before her time, we feel rather inadequate. There are few options so we load everyone into the van and drive into the city to the Angkor Children’s Hospital. There in the outdoor waiting room we are given a number on a slip of paper much like a deli counter and search for seats among the sea of parents and ill children waiting in the stifling heat to see the doctor. He sits at the front of the building armed with a stethoscope, tough depressors, a thermometer, and an eyes, ears and throat light and an endless stream of coughing, feverish, bleeding, crying children. We are just a few of the hundreds crammed in there today and as the only Westerners in the room, John and I attract attention. I wonder what the other parents there think of us – these rich white people visiting their lives only briefly. I look around at the sea of humanity and wonder how much of an impact are we really having despite our good intentions in bringing the children here.
The diagnosis is in and both older children have pneumonia and are given a weeks supply of medicine. The toddler’s infect cleft lip is of concern to the doctor and he wants the mother to stay but she refuses because she doesn’t want to leave her other children back at the village alone. We find a tuk tuk driver willing to make the trip and convince her to go back, get the other children and return. It costs us only $10. The aunt and boy are excited to realize that his mother is at a hospital only a few blocks from where we are and we give them money for transportation as well so he can visit her before they also head back to the village to rejoin his siblings. John and I try not to wince as the two of them pile onto the back of a moto sans helmets and zip off down the street.
We are both exhausted and wonder what will happen after we have left. Will the children take their full week’s worth of medicine or will the remaining pills be sold after a few doses? Will the boy’s mother die from TB here in the city and leave her 13-year-old daughter permanently in charge out at their neglected farm? Today at least, we were able to do something but it seems like very little in the whole scheme of their lives.
Sometimes I feel like I am spitting in the wind.