It’s five am and I’ve just spent a restful four hours in Taipei despite the fact I was sleeping in the hotel terry cloth robe. (Did I mention our luggage went direct to Cambodia?) As I sit here in this very nice hotel sipping some Earl Grey tea, I can’t help but think of how different things will be in a few hours. Taipei is a bustling metropolitan. Busy, well-kept freeways and overpasses, high rises and huge neon signs – we are in the New York of Taiwan. Less than two hours away by plane, we will soon be touching down in Phnom Penh, the capitol city of Cambodia. Economically depressed and dirty, it is a far cry from the view of my hotel room this early Monday. I watch from my window as a smartly dressed military squad steps in a morning cadence march. The hotel staff has gone out of their way to be accommodating after the mishap last night. Though it is early, they have set out coffee for Art and I at a table downstairs and given us the paper. Our white-gloved driver loads the bags. This morning we will be taking the hotel’s Mercedes to the airport. A little bit of luxury we were not expecting. This afternoon, we’ll travel to the CCF in a rickety cart hauled by a run down motorbike operated by a man who most likely sleeps in the cart at night. Guess it’s time to shed this robe and put on my emotional and mental armor. My wake up call just sounded….
The city is just as I remember. It doesn’t take long to adjust to being back. Familiar smells, sights and sounds overload my senses. I feel like I never left as I walk the short distance to the FCC to have a cold drink and a meeting with our Cambodian crew. Borom from Cardamom films has filled the role that once was Kulikar’s. He has brought us all together – a group of former strangers who will work side by side for the next couple of weeks trying to capture the stories of the children who live here. We have more in common than we think. Ny, our translator, went to high school in Sacramento. She wants to return to San Francisco to go back to college. Borom was raised in northern California, but chose to return to Cambodia to connect with his native country and people. Pou Mab, our driver and Pou Lee, our soundman are both native Cambodians who speak no English, but bring experience in filming in Cambodia to the table. We hash out last minute details to begin our shoot in the morning. As we get started, a familiar figure catches my eye. The barefoot and ragged young girl with the lethargic toddler slung to her hip wanders by. Theresa and I fed her almost every day in March till she disappeared. She is back walking her familiar beat, hands held out – pleading with passing people for money or food. I resolve to find out her story. She will be one of the first of the “Small Voices” we try to capture. I point her out to Ny and hope that I will see her again. I wonder if she will recognize me.
Someone recognizes me. Much to my relief and excitement, Vantha, my favorite Tuk Tuk driver who faithfully carted me around in March is in his familiar spot by the hotel. I make arraignments for him to bring Art and I to the CCF later and promise him more business in the coming weeks. I’m excited to get to the CCF and see the children.
CCF is quiet when we arrive. Many of the children are in public school in the afternoon. But it doesn’t take long to see a familiar face. Meng Ly is working at a computer station. I call his name and his face lights up. He runs over for a hug. He’s excited to be traveling to Kandal as part of the project and is even more thrilled to find out his best friend, Saroeurn, whom we are also profiling, is also coming along. Saroeurn shows off his latest karate belt, which he got at his last examination. Shy and sweet Layseng spots me on the third floor and attaches herself to my hip. Scott informs me her family situation has changed. Her family is no longer in Kandal. They have all moved to the dump where Layseng was for so long. Layseng, remembering her own experiences there worries about them all like a little mother. The only one of the four children I do not see is Leakhena. She is sick with a stomach virus and we leave our reunion for another day.
We sit to review the shooting schedule and it appears we have an additional destination to add to our list. Scott tells us the government is trying to clean up the slums in the city. Their solution is to bulldoze the ramshackle huts, load all the people into trucks like cattle, drive them 30 miles out of the city and dump them off in the middle of nowhere with nothing. No shelter, water, health care, educational opportunity for the children. Nothing. They are aptly named “Relocation Centers’ Scott grimly informs us it is a pit of disaster waiting to get worse. Illness, lack of food, overcrowding…. Ingredients for outbreaks of viruses and violence. I had thought nothing could be worse than the dump. I’m afraid I may be wrong. I’ll see first hand soon enough.