“Hee-ther, do you want an ice cream sandwich?”
When it is over 100 degrees and dripping with humidty, the thought of a icy cold treat was more than tempting, dodgy dairy products aside. Then Charam actually held up the ice cream sandwich. A large, melting scoop of vanilla nestling lovingly between a white bread sandwich roll. Talk about taking and eating things literally. Since I prefer my sandwich rolls with some sort of carnivore lover’s product and mustard, I passed on the Cambodian version of a Klondike Bar. Apparently, I had answered the popular marketing jingle “what would I do for one” in resounding fashion. Apparently, nothing at all.
I had spent a nice day upon arriving in Phnom Penh decompressing from the long flight by bringing my doc kids to the local arcade for the afternoon, followed by a little shopping . I’ve been here less than 24 hours and already the kids are fretting about when I am leaving. Layseng, the queen of the guilt trip, says the fact I am here for 3 weeks doesn’t count since I am only in Phnom Penh for 1 week. Which is NOT long enough for her mother to make me Anson cake, conveniently forgetting she has know about this trip for 6 weeks. I assure both her and Nghan that I will visit their families in the morning. The last trip to Cambodia, I was not able to visit my doc families living in Stung Meanchy, the city garbage dump, because my plane had made an emergency landing in Japan in the middle of the horrific earthquake, delaying my arrival by 2 days.
The kids are already pining down my schedule and lobbying for position. Before my jet lagged brain can register it, Layseng and Nhgan have neatly planned my morning for me. Which is how I found myself sweltering in the early morning heat cheering on Nghan’s football match at the ungodly hour of 7am. As soon as the match was over, Nhgan and I Tuk Tuk’d it over to Stung Meanchy with a cart full of boxed noodles and baby formula. The sun had not yet reached it’s full intensity when we arrived, which privately, I was deeply grateful for. The smell of the garbage in the sun is overwhelming, but bearable in the earlier morning hours. I pick my way along the refuse strewn path toward Nghan’s house, passing by a little market stand and highly aware it is the place Nghan’s older brother was shot in front of three months ago.
As always, the last 20 yards of path to Nghan’s house is under sludgy water. I carefully navigate my way along the edges and am busy congratulating myself on my ability to stay relatively sludge free when Nghan’s mom spots us and runs enthusiastically through the water in greeting, splashing us in her excitement. I don’t know why I always think I’ll be able to stay clean in a garbage dump, but hope springs eternal.
In short order I am escorted into their hut to catch up on the family news. Layseng is hanging out at Nghan’s house waiting for me to arrive. “you’re late!” she accuses, but since I am the only one with a watch that works, I show her we are actually early. She is unrepentant and switches tactics again. “How long can you stay? You should stay longer since last time you were not here at all.” That girl is SUCH a teenager.
I settle onto the floor of the hut and get the family gossip. Nghan’s brother’s gunshot wound is healing nicely and he thanks me for the bandages and Tylenol. A cute three month old naked baby girl, Nghan’s father’s new niece, is plopped into my lap. Her ears are pierced with tiny pieces of decorative thread and she gurgles happily. Her name is Sokana. Sleeping in the hammock next to me is Nghan’s new nephew. His sister, who was recently married, has just given birth. I had been invited to her wedding but was unable to attend. They are excited to show off these latest additions to their family. I ask the boy’s name and am mentally prepared for another hard to pronounce Khmer moniker when the sister beams and says “Kevin!” I guess I can handle that one.
Sokana shows her displeasure at all of us fussing over that OTHER baby by promptly peeing all over me. Luckily, since my pants were already damp from the splashing and already pretty foul smelling, this just blended right in. I assured them it was totally fine and caught Layseng snickering out of the corner of my eye.
In short order, I made my way over to Layseng’s house for another round of visits. Layseng’s mother has recently been accepted into an NGO program where they are teaching her to sew. She is very excited over the prospect of future work with this new skill. Work is scarce for the garage pickers ever since Stung Meanchy was closed to future dumping. With no fresh garbage coming in, there are no recyclables to gather. Layseng’s father tells me the ‘landlord’ is giving everyone in the village a year to move because they want the land to develop. While the families own their simple wood houses and can break them down and take them wherever they may go, the land that the structures stand on is rented from the government. I am incredulous over this piece of news. They want to develop the land in the middle of Stung Meanchy? What are they going to put there? A spa? A luxury hotel?
At the end of the visit, I hustle back to the hotel to shower before heading over to see Charam and Lina. Sunday is the day they get to spend together at Aziza’s Place where Lina lives. The three of us walk hand in hand over to the Russian Market to buy Lina a new backpack for school. I have not yet seen Yorn, their mother, since I arrived and I am worried I may not get the chance for very dire reasons. In the 7 years I have known Yorn, she has been a difficult individual to deal with. Abusive, manipulative and often uninterested in the welfare of her children except when they were begging for her, we’ve had a contentious relationship. However, all that fell away when Charam announced to me his mother had “gotten a good job” in Malaysia and would be gone for 2 years. He explained a ‘special company’ had offered her a good job over there and would pay for her expenses to travel there to work. I felt sick to my stomach. There are a lot of ‘special companies’ like this taking poor, desperate women out of their countries and into foreign ones in the guise of offering jobs. But they are for jobs unlike what these women are being promised. Prostitution or slavery in someone’s household. If Yorn leaves Cambodia, she will likely never return, ensnared in the ring of human trafficking.
To Charam I assure him I am pleased his mother has found work. I am wondering what the hell to do now. Charam isn’t sure if his mother has left yet and finding Yorn on the street is no easy task. With two kids having surgery Monday, I have little time to spend looking for her. I can only pray she hasn’t left yet and I can find her and talk some sense into her.
I’ve one last visit for my busy Sunday. Veng Von and Von Sao, my little Safe Haven kids, have finally arrived in Phnom Penh. Roza, my project manager, has gotten the kids and their parents settled in at a guest house near the Children’s Surgical Center. They are exhausted and totally overwhelmed, the parents as well as the children. None of them have ever left their villages and the 7 hour trip in a van, plus the experience of being in the city, is frightening. We go to a playground and sit and talk with the parents. Both kids are shyly clinging to their sides. I explain what tomorrow will bring – another busy day full of new, frightening experiences. Doctors, X-Rays and possibly surgery for their respective orthopedic issues. It will be a long day for everyone, but hopefully a day full of possibilities and the promise of a better future, where they will be able to someday run and play on the playground like the one nearby where kids are screaming with laughter.
Tomorrow is a whole new day.