It’s 4am Thursday morning, the car service is waiting outside to take me to LAX and I’m still trying to do last minute shuffling to fit everything into my bags to leave for Cambodia. The last two puzzle pieces are my personal toiletries and a supporting neck pillow we bought for one of our Safe Haven toddlers who has hydrocephalus, a fluid build up on the brain which causes his head to grow abnormally large. I manage to shove the bag of toiletries into my army duffel bag but the pillow will just not fit so I take it out of the packaging and simply stick it around my neck. Now I just have to remember not to leave it on any of the four flights I have to take on my way to Cambodia.
In an attempt to be as economical as possible, I’m using a creative combination of miles and global upgrade certificates to plot my journey back to my second home in Southeast Asia. My crazy travel life has resulted in a lot of frequent flier perks that often come with a lot of fine print. For example, somewhere in United Airlines handbook is a rule that states if one tries to use hard earned reward points, one must take the most convoluted flight path possible in order to arrive at one’s final destination.
I heave my two large duffel bags on the scale during check in and try to look nonchalant when they are both well overweight. Heck, my carry on bags are overweight but thankfully no one is going to weigh those before I board. My job is to just look like I am not about to collapse in a heap when I swing the hefty backpack over my shoulders. Luckily, a perk without fine print for my travel status is my ability to take five bags for free and they can be overweight without penalty. Because of this, I have crammed every last medical supply and therapy toy possible into my suitcases. We have been running very low on children’s vitamins with iron. Many of our Safe Haven kids are anemic due to their poor diets. Thanks to Safe Haven Medical Outreach donors, there is a virtual pharmacy in my bags. I have a recurring nightmare that TSA is going to scan the army duffel, see the 40 vials of liquid children’s vitamins and plastic nebulizer tubing and think I am setting up a meth lab. I’ve stuck a sheet of paper in each duffel which has Safe Haven’s federal non profit ID and a inventory of the supplies I am transporting. The man checking me in graciously offers to check the bags all the way through to Phnom Penh even though my last leg of travel is with a different airline. He nearly topples over trying to swing the bags onto the conveyor belt and I send up a silent prayer they will make it all the way to my destination intact and on time.
My 1st flight to Seattle gets off to a rocky start. The jet way broke so we all tromped down two flights of stairs to get to the tiny commuter jet. “Why can’t United have a direct flight to Tokyo?” I was crankily thinking as I hefted my 100 lb. roller board onto the planeside check in cart. The overly stuffed backpack would not fit in the overhead bin and through sheer force, I crammed it under my seat and hoped I didn’t rupture my computer screen in the process. By the time the plane was aloft and bouncing about in the turbulent air, I was more than ready for a nerve calming cocktail. Except on tiny commuter flights, they only have coffee, water and orange juice. The flight attendant came down the aisle enthusiastically peddling breakfast snack boxes and extoling the virtues of the prepackaged pieces of toast, a statement I greeted with some skepticism. She seemed so excited, I didn’t have the heart to point out that is was actually just an overly large, stale crouton so I simply unwrapped it from its bunker surviving packaging and day dreamed about the delicious foods my niece Becka was probably enjoying at Army basic training.
Once in Seattle, I casted about for info on my gate for my flight to Tokyo. One shuttle, four escalators and 3636 steps later, according to my UP fitness bracelet, I made my way to there. As I wearily shrugged the heavy pack from my shoulders and collapsed into a chair, UP bracelet helpfully let me know I had burned 260 calories in the journey to my gate, which I suppose I should have felt empowered over, but mostly I just felt envious of the little old ladies who went by me on those motorized carts.
Wheels up, wheels down. Wheels up, wheels down. LAX-Seattle-Tokyo-Bangkok. At midnight Saturday, I arrived in Bangkok and beelined for the terminal hotel rental rooms to grab a quick power nap before my 8am flight to Phnom Penh. Despite only getting four hours of uneasy rest, I felt pretty envirgorated waiting for my final flight. This was the last leg before I would be back again in the county I first fell in love with in 2006 when I started filming my documentary Small Voices: The Stories Of Cambodia’s Children. A journey that started 7 years ago with a film and has led to the creation of the Safe Haven Medical Outreach program. At the other end of this final flight, the kids from my documentary would be waiting for me to arrive for a two day visit before I have to head to Siem Reap to meet up with my Safe Haven staff and get back to work.
Weighing heavily on my mind is 9 year old Lina. Only a toddler of 2 years old when I first met her begging on the streets of Phnom Pen with her older brother Charam, Lina has wound up back on the streets. When she was 6, I had found a small NGO that had room to take her in and for the past couple of years, we worked hard to try and adapt Lina to life off of the street and enroll her in school. Unfortunately, despite the staff’s best effort, Lina was unable to adapt to a structured life and school and wanted only to either be with her older brother Charam or back on the streets with her baby brothers. Repeated requests to enroll her at the Cambodian Children’ Fund with Charam have not come to fruition and Lina is back to living on a sidewalk. I worry about her constantly and finding her once I land and get settled at the hotel was a top priority. Finding a transient child living on the streets of a city is not an easy task and sadly, one that I had grown used to with Lina in years past and now must do again.
Once in Phnom Penh, I’m relieved to see all of the bags have arrived and I skipped jauntily outside into the blazing heat and humidity. The driver for The Quay Hotel looks around in confusion. “Just you? All these bags? ” he asks with a puzzled glance at my cart piled high with all of the luggage. I start to go into a lengthy explanation but it is lost with his limited English. I settle on a simple, “Supplies for poor kids in village” and clamber into the back of the car where I spent a few fruitless moments looking for a working seat belt. I never find one but hope springs eternal. My driver snaps on the radio and begins to sing along with some Khmer club music. I stare at the giant stuffed dog I am inexplicidely sharing the back seat with and wish heartily I hadn’t left my ear plugs on the plane.
The staff at The Quay welcomes me back and fusses over the fact I will only be in Phnom Penh for 2 days this trip. It is good practice for when I see my documentary kids who are absolutely going to have a fit that I can’t stay longer. Six kids who were born into extreme poverty and survived picking garbage and begging on the streets before getting a second chance through education, I have loved and watched these young men and women grow up and they are family. And like family, they both love the work I do with Safe Haven but lament the time it takes me away from them.
I don’t want to waste a minute of that time, so I grab tuk tuk and hustle over to CCF where all my doc kids, except for Lina, currently live. And thank God, nestled next to her brother Charam at the student assembly that is going on, is my little street urchin. Lina had made her way there to visit her brother for the weekend. Within minutes, I have my arms around all of them and the last 33 hours of travel melts away under the warmth of their happiness and love. I settle into a chair and Lina rests her head on my shoulder. She beams, gives me a quick kiss on the cheek and says, “Mak Tor, did you miss me? Are you happy to see me? Do you love me?”
Yes, yes and yes.