Displaced Yankee Productions | Wednesday Morning

Wednesday Morning

The wake up call comes at 5:30 am and I forget rather quickly how charming and inspiring it was to see Theresa so happy after being out at dawn yesterday. Why did I agree to get up this early? Theresa is treated to the sight of me very grumpily and silently staggering to the shower. I notice she did not bring me coffee. This could be dangerous. She tells me I’ll thank her later. I stand under the cold shower and think not so thankful thoughts. Then we are out and into the early morning light of the riverside. It is already bustling with people. Children struggle to rise from their spots along the walkway where they have spent the night. A badly crippled boy, whom we have seen being wheeled on an old wheelbarrow up and down the side walk, is sleeping covered in a filthy blanket. A girl of two sits on the concrete naked and in her own excrement. I continue along and almost stumble across five sleeping boys between the ages of nine and eleven. They are simply sprawled on the sidewalk, cuddled close together. They could be boys at a sleepover the way they have fallen together to rest after a hard day, but for the place that surrounds them. A little girl about eight is trailing along with Theresa. She is hungry-no surprise-and very sick. Green mucous and a deep cough… she clearly is in need of antibiotics. Theresa calls to me that she wants to buy her some breakfast. We set off – the three of us- looking for the street vendor Theresa met the day before. However, it isn’t long before four of her friends find us. Three girls and a boy – they join our group as we walk along. We feel like the “pied piper”. Like typical kids they are clamoring for ice cream and Theresa is lecturing me that we need to feed them something healthy for breakfast. Before we know it, we’ve been expertly led to a nearby restaurant and have all sat down to breakfast. It’s a noisy, joyous affair as the kids order chicken and rice and strawberry milk. They tell us their names. Most speak very little English, except for the boy, who seems to be the oldest and the leader of the little group. They are delighted by our cameras and take pictures of themselves and us. Theresa and I are sure we are going to wind up sick. Two of the children have deep, rumbling coughs and the little girl who caught our eye originally is curled up in her chair. Drinking the milk hurts her chest, the boy tells me. The food arrives and the kids happily dig in. A woman from Hong Kong approaches me and introduces herself. She also works with street children and is happy to see us with them. The boy tries to give me a lesson in Khmer. He points to items on the table and says them in English, then in Khmer for me. My pronunciation makes him smile. As breakfast nears its end, the kids don’t want to leave us. It’s time for more sad eyes. “Sole?” They ask me pointing to their dirty, cut up feet. “Sole?” “Shoes?”
We head outside and find ourselves with five clinging kids. They hold our hands and lean into us, cuddling. It doesn’t take me long to give in.
“Show me the shoes,” I say.
We are off – the line of us, all holding hands as the kids laugh and lead us through the morning traffic. They dance and spin as they hold onto me and soon we are on a side street market. Five pairs of shoes later we are heading back to our hotel. On the way, the boy dashes down a cramped dirty alley where he apparently lives and reemerges a few minutes later wearing a pair of socks. He is utterly pleased. And quite a site. A black Britney Spears tee shirt, gym shorts, duck socks, checked yellow sneakers – mismatched and beautiful. Regretfully we part with them at our hotel and they wave as they dash across the street back to the river. Theresa and I make a beeline for our hotel, strip off our clothes and shower. Germs, dirt, lice and who knows what else – we can’t take any chances of catching something. One hot shower, soap and a bottle of Purell sanitizer later, we get dressed and head to the dumps. (Guess where we’ll be later? Back in the shower) Theresa doesn’t even want to put her pants back on till the last minute, so she’s running around in her underwear while we step over the pants in the middle of the room. Kulikar is going to be a few minutes late so I’m heading downstairs with some socks to see if the kids are still around. After all, I did bring 14 pairs of them.
Later that day –
Was it only this morning we were at breakfast? It is five o’clock and it has been a long day – mentally and physically. Kulikar arrives to escort us to the dump and it is good to see her. She is wonderful, charming and already an invaluable assert to this production. We stop at a market to pick up things for the children at the dump. Kulikar’s advice is to bring things, but not pull them out till after we have finished our job of capturing film and footage. After some debate, we settle on four large bags of fruit, hats to shield from the sun, and a box of facemasks.
I think I am prepared for this. I really do. After all, I have read about it, heard about it, even seen pictures of it. This is why I’m here. But I feel my words will be utterly inadequate to describe what I have witnessed today.
A heavy haze of smoke hangs over acres upon acres of smoldering garbage. The landfill is enormous, stretching as far as the eye can see. Hundreds of people are already there picking through the refuse. We pull on the facemasks Kulikar has brought. The sting of the smoke in our eyes is nothing compared to the rotting, cloying smell. Standing in the dump are make shift shelters – homes – for these desperately poor people. The conditions are not fit for any human being, let alone for children. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. While some are thankfully wearing rubber boots, other are barefoot. It is unbearable. I am in sneakers and feel it is not enough, let alone without shoes. Massive dump trucks and backhoes move with surprising speed through the throngs of people, digging and dumping piles of fresh garbage. The children are more agile than we are – more than once Theresa and I are yanked out of the path of a backhoe or truck. We sink in the garbage as we try to maneuver around. The children work diligently and for the most part, silently. A new truck means new opportunity and as soon as one appears, everyone crowds for it – so close it is easy to see how someone could be run over or buried in the rubble. I don’t know where to focus. The flies swarm around me and the smoke fills me eyes. I try not to breathe. Snap a picture. Grab a few minutes of film. Turn. Refocus. There is another child picking through molded and rotten food. There is one wrapping himself in a piece of old carpet he has hooked out of the pile. Snap. Focus. Turn. A beeping startles me and a truck is right on top of me. Kulikar yanks me out of the way. It is slippery and hard to keep your footing. My sneakers are covered with something slimy – God knows what. It makes me nauseous to see children barefoot digging in this. All of us are grim faced. A little girl shyly tells Kulikar her hair clip is so pretty. Kulikar pulls it from her head and hands it over. The little girl’s eyes shine. She is so filthy, but she feels like a princess with her new clip. It is so hot and I wonder what they are drinking. Kulikar lets me know later they drink contaminated sewer water that runs nearby. An intelligent young man who speaks excellent English strikes up a conversation with Theresa. He wants to know if she knows why they are here – why they live and work here and where they come from. He is the picture of lost potential. Given just a fraction of an opportunity, imagine what these kids could accomplish or do. The key to changing the situation in her country, Kulikar says, is health and education. Neither is in view here today. After awhile, it just becomes overwhelming. Theresa catches my eye and asks me if I’ve seen enough. I had seen enough in the first five seconds. We put away our cameras and pull out the fruit. I am nearly pulled down by the hungry children that mob me. I can barely keep my footing as I hand out the small fruits to eager hands. The faces are all a blur to me. One bag is gone, then another. I try to hand some to Theresa to give out, but we give up. It is almost impossible for me to move. Too soon the fruit is gone. We get out the masks. The children snatch them up for their faces. I distribute the hats based on who does not have one. It is hard because there are way more kids than stuff. We try to get something to everyone. We head back to the car. I pass a boy on the way. He has his hat on his head and a mask in his pocket. The juice from the fruit stains his face and he gives me a smile. I think how Theresa and I will go back to our hotel and shower, sit down to a nice lunch have nice bed to sleep in. He’s going to finish his piece of fruit and head back. Another dump truck is coming.

 
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