25 March 2008

welcome to Cambodia

It is easy to quickly acclimate to the chaos of the city; vehicles of all sorts, open store fronts, men squatting on the sidewalk fixing, carving, welding, eating, watching, and the like are all common sites. There are millions of motorbikes in Phnom Penh and consequently many shops on every street offering motorcycle needs. These ‘stores’ with all their showrooms on the sidewalk typically specialize and sell only one item such as unpainted plastic, shocks, helmets, spark plugs, seats, wheels, or other unrecognizable parts. Some specialized in fixing bikes and would do the mechanics right there on the sidewalk. Men even weld on the sidewalk in plain view of everyone; no eyes protected. It is interesting also to see stacked on the sidewalk several boxes of TVs! Certainly they pull these into their store – basically a narrow room facing the road that is their warehouse secured by a metal pull down garage door, at night only to restack them outside for potential buyers every day. The other stores have tons of colorful wares and speeding by in our taxis some are unrecognizable but look a lot like kitschy stuff to me.

Eleven million people live in Cambodia. It is a small country about the size of Missouri. Education, technical training and skills development are crucial to rebuild the capacity of people to improve their lives and to help the country overcome their second-world status. Cambodia's once rich natural resources--minerals, forests and fish--were greatly depleted during decades of civil war and turmoil. Most of the country's economy is spurred on by tourism, garment factories and international aid. Our group consists of four people from Holland, Michigan and two from Bali, Indonesia to bring supplies, money, and art therapy to a few orphanages.

We change hotels three times while in Phnom Penh and while we get $15 dollar rooms in four star hotels we were all a bit uncomfortable with open bathroom windows and rooms not sealing to the outside world. Phnom Penh is supposedly malaria free, though I still worry about the risk, being the only one in our group not to take malaria medication. I rarely saw a mosquito in my room through out the week, but knew being stung was bound to happen. To combat this inevitability during sleep, I wore a head net to bed each night I was in Indochina.

the orphanage
After a nice breakfast at the Hotel Anise where they make a great quasi-western breakfast of an omelet of sorts with a grilled tomato half garnishing the plate served with great French baguette, we take a big Mercedes van to the Wat Opot orphanage an hour and a half south of Phnom Penh in the Takeo Province. The orphanage is situated behind an active temple, called a Wat in the village of Opot; this is how the Project is named. The campus includes a few buildings and they tend to ponds in the back for fish. Barbed wire is strung along the back yard to keep the cows out, and they keep ducks, geese, and tend to a garden. Boys run around us flying home-made kites as we walk. Here, all kids live together; both HIV positive and negative. This orphanage is also an AIDs hospice caring for adults as they die. It is often that the parents choose to come here to die so that their kids will be taken care of after they are gone. The government is getting better distributing ARV drugs and caring for it’s sick. The death rate has fallen from close to 100 per month to four. Typically, It is rare that children would be kept together regardless of their HIV status and doctors from all over the world want to study this Project. Our first day, there is a group of Japanese doctors visiting considering taking on this study. I fear they will uncover that the kids do transmit to one another; let's hope not.

I worry about the kids contracting the illness from each other and of the danger of getting sick myself as some of the children pointed out to me having AIDs have open sores on their arms and legs while others HIV positive look completely healthy. It is a sad situation to witness.

Some of the children eventually join us in our tour of the grounds as we walk towards the Wat being led by a very interesting woman from Santa Cruz, California who is volunteering for six months here. She’s taken two years to travel and volunteer at various places in South America and Asia. She is a teacher by trade and also a famous surfer. At the orphanage, she helps with the daily needs of the kids such as bathing and dressing caring mostly for the children she notices that are prejudiced by the official staff of care givers. Vicki also teaches the children and a few of the monks from the Wat, English in addition to starting formal lessons on guitar and piano.

Upon arriving at the Project, she found the Wat to be filled with garbage and the floors filthy. The monks didn’t clean up and it was not a peaceful place to mediate. She cleaned it right away and started a program with the kids to help every week there. The monks have appreciated their efforts and started to take better care of the overall grounds as well. In the main temple the kids cling to a few of us and run around yelling, listening with muffled giggles as their voices echo in the tall empty brightly painted room. They play a game with me where they try to sneak up on me, only to run away when I ‘happen’ to notice them. They are adorable.

art therapy and scotch tape
We have time with a few kids who are not in school and we start the first session of Art Therapy using ‘story people’ to talk about what's important in their lives and how we are all different so to praise our individuality. We talk about expressions and how we each react to various situations. The kids draw their own faces in various moods, one child so intent on being accurate that he stood in front of a small mirror hanging in the classroom his sheet of paper held to the wall adjacent. The kids are so loving, interested, and focused on education. Many spoke –via translators, and wrote about how they want to go to university to study and to travel or be doctors. Education is what Cambodia needs most. The kids are amused when after tedious folding and cutting of their papers, a paper doll emerges. I have them cut out the face they drew from the expressions exercise and this is taped to the doll along with the arms in various poses. It is then they become more fascinated with the tape than anything else possibly never having seen it before. “Can I have more tape?”

After the lesson we sit on the cement fence in front of the dorm and talk with the kids. Most just want to hold our hands. One of the older woman helpers – who are nicked-named, ‘Grandmas’, walks out of the dorm with a five year old crying boy whose legs are covered in sores. Closer, she pushes him towards me to hold and comfort. I am completely petrified as he is likely HIV positive and I am scared to touch him avoiding personal contact with the children all day. I pat his back and pull him a little closer to my side. The Grandma puts his hand in mine and I work hard not to show alarm on my face. Still he cries. I’m not about to pick him up. I walk him over to another from our visiting group is lifting boys up to sit in a tree hoping he’ll take over for me. I walk slowly with this little child until I see that his feet are starting to bleed as they are dry and swollen, the dirt and gravel trail being too much for them. I turn him around and get him back to the Grandma pointing to his feet. Of course he’s crying.

I’m never so thrilled to get on our mini-bus and douse my hands and arms with anti-bacterial gel, though I wait ‘till after we have waved our goodbyes and the bus has turned away from the kids.

breakfast parade
At breakfast in a new neighborhood we sit on a sunny veranda overlooking a street. There become fewer and fewer cars and suddenly there are monks in the street marching and carrying gold boxes, some with umbrellas shielding them from the sun, others an umbrella being held for them by a helper aside or behind them. There are many people now and the street has suddenly turned into a parade. Behind the monks are women of all ages and mostly older who are dressed in white carrying these same boxes. Then come women in white tops and matching maroon sarongs carrying one or two gold boxes, some carrying gifts on their heads.

I get myself to the curb narrowly missing an old shabbily dressed woman walking on the street parallel with the parade carrying a large bamboo cage filled with small wren like birds. I take pictures of the women who oblige by smiling at my camera. The parade now turns to young people dressed in white shirts and navy pants –typical school uniforms, carrying these same boxes. I’ve got to find out what this is all about, so I start walking in the parade much to the chagrin of my traveling companions and make my way to the middle to spy. I find a young boy smiling in greeting to me and say hello the Kmer way, “Sou-sdie!”. He says “hello” in response and I ask him what is in the box and why they are marching. Unfortunately his English only extends to greeting though and he can’t answer. The gold boxes have clear lids and I look inside only to see various toiletries and toys. They all seem to be carrying the same box filled with similar items. It reminds me of the Samaritan Christmas shoe box initiative.

another orphanage
After breakfast, we drive a short way into the province to visit a smaller orphanage of about thirty kids run by Baptist Philippines. I choose to do a coping exercise where we can discuss what is important in our days and in our hearts to help the children look within themselves to draw comfort in their faith and for the dreams and memories they hold most dear.

It is a very successful lesson day and gives Frida and I the most warmth that maybe we helped them. Gary talks with the kids while we cut paper and ready tables for the painting project. We sing songs together in English with the children as they wait patiently as we prepare. With a translator I introduce myself and use the blow up globe to illustrate that I come from the other side of the world. I don’t know if they understand or if they’ve even seen a globe before. I have the children pass the globe around as they introduce themselves and tell me how old they are – some do this in English, some Khmer. Frida and I dialog with them through the teachers acting as our translators, Ella and Romaleen discussing what is important in our daily lives and in our hearts. I share that I pray everyday when I wake up still lying in my bed. I talk about bicycling, cooking, working, traveling to far away lands, and close friends. Frida talks about how she prays and how God changes her so maybe she is less angry. A few kids volunteer to share with us that God is important to them and they want their family to know Jesus –this is significant especially as when these children have living relatives, the families have abandoned them. One girl wants all of Cambodia to know about God and be saved. The oldest by far is a boy of 19 and he shares in English that he wants to be a missionary to travel Cambodia and the world sharing the message of Jesus.

I draw on the sheets of large paper a heart and hand them out to each child who eagerly starts drawing understanding the exercise completely to record what is important to them inside the heart. Afterward we have a few kids explain to everyone why they drew what they did. It is so incredibly precious. I explain with Romaleen that they are to remember these future dreams, faith, friends, and ideas always. I remind them that they are the future of Cambodia. Frida and I lead them in the song, “God Is So Good” singing only the first verse, but in three languages: English, Khmer, and then Indonesian. We all hold our heart pictures up and sway as if at a concert. We close by praying out loud and bless them.

As we loaded in the van to head back to the city, it was especially precious to hear one young child singing to himself, "God is so good.."

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