Displaced Yankee Productions | Motto Drivers Are a Romantic Lot

I can tell how Cambodian I’ve become because I now think nothing of jumping on the back of a motto bike, helmet-less, to zip haphazardly through the streets of Phnom Penh to get where I am going. The side effect of riding a lot of mottos where you must cling to your driver is that you get asked out a lot. The writer in me has had a blast devising a wonderful cover story about my long and happy marriage with a large, jealous bodybuilder.
It was a bit hard getting up this morning as Art and I were up late last night meeting old friends for drinks – our soundman from last summer and Ny, our translator met us at a bar. We were all glad to see one another and catch up. Ny is now working at an orphanage and Sophy is working for BBC. Megan had a headache and decided not to join us. Much to Art’s amusement, Sophy’s girlfriend literally squealed at the TOP of her lungs when she heard Megan Follows was our narrator and was with us on the trip. Apparently, she is a huge Anne of Green Gables fan and started spouting lines from the movies.
A little levity is always needed to help clear my mind before I write about Stung Meanchy. We got an early start this morning with a 5:30 am wake up call. We were hoping to get to the dump before the sun rose too high in the sky and the heat and smell became unbearable. The last several times I have been to the dump, I have to confess we have hurried through our shots because the atmosphere was almost too much to bear.
I spent the better part of the ride warning Dennis and Megan how horrible it would be.
Next time I go – I’ll have to try the same method of anticipating the worst and winding up pleasantly surprised. Let me clarify. Certainly pleasant is never a word that goes hand and hand with Stung Meanchy. But a heavy blanket of clouds rolled in and never left. Shielded from the sun and blessed with a slight breeze – it was bearable. Without the scorching sun, the smell wasn’t as bad and the breeze kept the hundreds of flies away. Dennis and Megan totally lucked out. Dennis told me he really didn’t mind not getting the full effect.
The positive side to this was that we were really able to spend time getting footage that will help highlight what these kids have to deal with. In the span of a few hours, we came across a variety of the things the kids told us they find on a regular basis. Syringes, medical waste, broken glass….. we also found part of a femur bone that for a horrifying moment we thought may be human, but it turned out to be a cow. We were apparently lucky – a boy standing nearby told us he had found a dead baby two days before and that morning had buried a hand he had found. I really have no response. What do you possibly say to a child who deals with that on a day-to-day basis? I handed him a granola bar and felt totally inadequate.
We wandered further along and came across several piles of burning debris. The garbage will spontaneously combust in various spots and the thick black smoke hazes over the dump. Megan and I both had headaches from the fumes and I can’t imagine the effects on the lungs of the children who live here. Our sound man told us the people here toss heavy plastic bags on the flames because the bags are woven through with thin metal wire which can be sold once the plastic is burned off. We watch as one boy approaches a grimy large scale being overseen by a woman with a wad of Rels, the local currency. She weighs his trash and peals off a few bills amounting to around .25 cents for him. Our soundman informs us she will sell it later for three times the profit. The young man will spend that entire amount on something to eat. Then he’ll fill another bag again.
We leave the dump after 3 hours because we plan to return this evening after dark. Many of the kids spoke to us about the horror and dangers of working in the dump at night and I think it is important to be able to capture what they are talking about. So we took an easy afternoon to get ready for this evening. We’ll be stopping off at the airport first to pick up a late arrival – Theresa Kennedy my still photographer and friend who came with me on the very first trip to Cambodia, has decided she doesn’t want to miss the final chapter in our saga here and has taken three planes to Cambodia to join us. There are not many people who would trek halfway around the world to such a destitute place for only five days in order to hang out in the dump at night with a police escort. She’s one of a kind. (And perhaps a little crazy) J
While I caught up on my shooting schedule paperwork in my coffee haunt with Megan – Art went out to the riverfront to shoot some B roll. He arrived shortly after, looking flustered. Apparently a crazy Australian man was harassing him and following him around insinuating cruel and nasty things and basically verbally abusing him. He also was telling the street kids we had been talking with to stay away from us. I got completely riled up and stomped off with Art to go find this jerk that had been loitering around near the riverfront where our river girl from yesterday and Charam’s mother and Linna had been hanging out. I was ready to give this fellow a piece of my mind and Art wasn’t feeling so charitable either. Alas, he was gone when we arrived (which is probably a good thing) and I sat with the girls on the river front with Linna on my lap and asked if this man had been bothering them or hurting them. They said no and one girl who spoke good English said he was just a crazy guy. I told them to tell us if he bothered them in any way and then asked the girl to asked Yorn how she was feeling. Yorn told me she was going to a clinic tomorrow for a baby check up and asked if I would go with here. Unfortunately, I can’t, as I have an interview scheduled with the Cambodian Children’s Defense League. But I told her I would meet her in the morning and give her enough money for the appointment.
I’m sitting here in my hotel taking a break and contemplating how much laundry I have to wash in the sink – which is not a very attractive prospect. Even less attractive is that in less than an hour – I’ve got to put back on the disgusting clothes I wore to the dump earlier – and head back again. A different world waits when the sun goes down there. It’s time to tread a little carefully.
Our Wednesday night evening at the dump has not gotten off to a very positive start. We first headed out to the airport to pick up Theresa, who was flying in from Bangkok after a long layover in Hong Kong. Art and I began to suspect something was wrong when the entire flight walked past us with no sign of my intrepid photographer, who was flying halfway around the world just to film a dump at night. I convinced a guard to let me into the baggage area. Theresa is easy to spot and its not just because no one else in a 50 mile radius has bright red hair. Disturbingly, she is at the lost luggage counter being told they have NO idea where her suitcase is. It’s been missing since Hong Kong and she had to beg them to let her on the plane because they couldn’t match her with a bag. So I’m lucky she is here – but she’s got the clothes on her back and her camera (thank God)
And since we are heading to the dump – she’s not thrilled to not have a change of clothes.
We stop at CCF to pick up Scott and he breaks out some extra threads he’s got on hand. Of course, we are at a children’s shelter – so it isn’t long before Theresa is decked out in a tee shirt and a pair of army pants three sizes to small. She tells Scott it’s been a long time since she had the body of a 14-year-old boy. The army pants are so tight; she literally has to back into the van and sort of lean up into the seat. You can’t pay for entertainment this good. Art and I have fun by making enough suggestive comments to make her blush (not hard to do with a redhead) and we’re off to pick up our police protection for the evening. When we get a look at these guys, we know that no one is gonna mess with us. They are armed with AK 47 automatic rifles and look fairly intimidating.
It isn’t long before we arrive in a surreal world. The darkness covering the 11 acres of rotten rubbish is pierced in hundreds of places by the thin white lights coming from the headlamps of the workers as they sift through the debris during the night shift. The orange glow from the trash fires silhouette the workers while the thick black smoke rises behind them. It is busier than I expected and there are a ton of boys. Apparently, it is far more dangerous for girls at night to fall prey to predators, so boys make up much of the work force this evening. We spot a girl here and there and can’t help but notice those who are resting in makeshift enclosures right on top of the piles.
A bulldozer roars to life and barrels into the piles of garbage with little concern for the people how scatter frantically out of the way. Several large dump trucks also pile onto the scene and we see one man nearly get run over in his effort to move out of the way. It becomes a tricky business to maneuver with the camera and light to get action shots of the truck without losing our footing. It’s a little too close for comfort for Fiona, CCF’s nurse and Annabel, CCF’s office manager, who have come with us. They shout warnings at us to watch out for the truck as they also dance out of the way.
I hand a granola bar to a young boy who is working near me and he unwraps it with slimy black hands and shoves it into his mouth. I wonder – not for the first time – how I can possibly work with someone to get above ground, fresh water tanks into the dump. It is blazing hot, even this late at night and all of us are guiltily looking forward to a cold bottle of water. Such a simple pleasure – denied to these workers.
We head back and crash for the night. Theresa has been up for over 30 hours and longingly remembers everything locked in her suitcase somewhere in the Twilight Zone of Cathay Air.


seven × 7 =