Displaced Yankee Productions | 2009 | March
Archive for March 2009

It’s my last day in Phnom Penh and I’m already dreading saying goodbye to the kids. I know the day is going to pass much too quickly and we’ve got a full schedule to attend too. From 10am to 3pm there is a citywide karate tournament for all the kids in the various NGO’s. It is taking place in a large arena at the nearby Friend’s School and Charam and Bunlong are beside themselves with excitement and pride. They are both competing for CCF and have already dressed themselves carefully in their ghi’s and belts. I’m a little stuffed with excitement and pride myself and am thankful that I am actually there for such an important event.

The arena is about 120 degrees and Karen and I are drenched with sweat within minutes of arriving. She goes off in search of some warm bottled water and soda and I secure us a prime spot sitting on the stage facing the front of the competition floor. The organizers are trying to keep the heat down by keeping the lights fairly low. I am not sure this is really having much of an impact but I’d rather not test the theory by raising the lights. My thin grey shirt has become progressively more transparent in this sauna and lights would probably just add to the show.

Bunlong is up first and he and another boy from a competing school each demonstrate various karate forms. Bunlong wins his round but loses his second and is eliminated from the next match up. When they call Charam’s name my stomach is in knots hoping he does well. I move right up to the edge of the mat with my little video camera like an obnoxious stage parent and bounce nervously on the sidelines. Being bias, I think he absolutely kicks the other kid’s butt. However, I find myself holding my breath waiting for the judges’ decision. Charam wins the round and runs over to me with a huge grin on his face. I give him a big hug and kiss and tell him how proud I am. He struts away looking very pleased with himself.

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I take an absurd amount of pleasure in the fact that the Fresco Café staff always remembers me in between my visits. “Good morning, Long Black Decaf!” the hostess chirps as I stumble my way over to my favorite seat. I am not a particularly alert morning person no matter what country I am in however I can’t help but be in a cheery mood. This morning Karen and I are heading over to CCF to pick up our gang of kids for a shopping trip to the mall. Whenever I am in town, the kids love to head there to shop and have burgers and ice cream. Plus they never get tired of the escalators, which are better than an amusement park ride. Until we started going to the mall, none of them had ever even seen an escalator and it’s become one of the highlights of the trip for them.

The kids pile into the back of the pick up. On the way, we stop to pick up Linna and she happily jumps into the truck sans shoes and wearing a pink panther shirt that is about five sizes too big and absolutely filthy. I’m just relieved we were able to find her for our outing. One can never tell where in the city Linna will be at any given moment and Charam was anxious about finding her. Our little family now complete we are on our way.

I’m here to tell you that teenage girls are the same everywhere. Lyda and Layseng fuss so long over finding shoes and clothing, I’m sure the boys are about to gnaw off their own arms. We all heave a sigh of relief when they finally manage to pick out their shoes – matching of course but our relief is short lived when they can only find a right shoe in Lyda’s size. This prompts an all out search by the adults and I’m on my hands and knees in a pile of random footwear praying for a left shoe size 36. Charam has wasted little time in picking out yellow basketball sneakers, jeans and a tee shirt. My older boys Nghan and Meng Ly opted for men’s dress pants; shirts and leather sandals and I smile to think that these handsome young men have come a long way from life in the garbage dump and village.

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I was up at 5am waiting for the bus to pick me up for the six hour trek to Phnom Penh when a tuk tuk driver pulled up and asked if I needed a ride. I mentioned my mode of upcoming transportation and rather than seem disappointed at losing a fare, he was thrilled to have a captive audience on which to practice his English. I admit to being a little preoccupied and less than gracious conversationalist. My thoughts were divided on the desperate anticipation of seeing my “kids” in Phnom Penh and of little Sun Nam, the disabled boy from the orphanage the day before. I was anxious to begin my journey on the Mekong Express with my ten-dollar “first class” ticket clutched tightly in my hand and assurances ringing in my head from various individuals that the bus was the way to travel. Though I admit I was a little suspicious listening to people extol the virtues of bus travel to Phnom Penh when Roman, one of CFI’s founding directors suggested at a dinner party the night before that the ride would be more bearable with a handful of valium. My disposition was not greatly improved by the sight of a rickety, beat up overgrown mini van lurching down the street towards me. That better not be the bus – I thought to myself just as my chatty tuk tuk companion helpfully announced – YOUR BUS! It ground to a halt in front of me and from the sounds of the brakes, possibly ground them away completely. I sourly climbed aboard and found myself a seat sans seat belt but at least with an intact back rest. The bus lumbered away, slowly building up speed and in no time we were careening through the back streets of Siem Reap, which at best, are pitted with potholes and large rocks. I moved to the center of my seat to keep from smashing my head against the window. Small wonder people take drugs prior to getting onboard I thought uncharitably as we bounced along with teeth rattling intensity.

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My last day in Siem Reap started off rather well. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I actually slept through the night. Feeling full of spit and vinegar I bounded down the steps to Shinta Mani’s café for a much-needed cappuccino. The absolutely adorable staff – trainees from their trade school hover around me anxious to test their new skills and a young man who had just started the day before is absolutely excited to show off his barista skills. He wants to be the one to make my coffee and nearly twenty minutes later, he carefully walks over with his masterpiece of perfect foam and delicately sprinkled coco powder. Depositing it in front of me with a hopeful grin, he steps back and waits for the verdict. I take a sip – it’s ice cold. No small wonder since it took him so long to make it look good but I don’t have the heart to tell him and instead opt for reassuring him that it is simply the best cappuccino I’ve ever had. He thanks me about a dozen times and trots off with a happy smile. It’s too hot in Siem Reap for hot coffee anyway….

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Although the flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap is only an hour – the distance traveled emotionally is a distance that is hard to quantify. Already the plush luxury of the Shangri La Hotel is fading and ready to take up permanent residence during my stay in Cambodia in that cozy little nook in my brain called Western Privilege Guilt. John and I take a taxi to our hotel, The Shinta Mani. It is by far the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in Cambodia. The hotel manager welcomes John warmly – she has been acting as a coordinator for him during the last year as he prepares to launch his new non-profit venture CFI or the Coalition for Financial Independence. The goal of the program is to change the lives of impoverished families by giving them the means to become self sufficient through improved farming, wells and creative business ventures, such as village production of mosquito nets. I’ve come to Siem Reap with John as a media consultant for the project before I head to Phnom Penh in a few days to visit the kids from my documentary Small Voices. Almost immediately, I realize this is no ordinary hotel. Profits from the hotel fund an attached trade school, which is currently training 30 impoverished students in culinary arts and business management. After a rigorous 15 month training program, the hotel then provides job placement and lifetime support to each student and his/her family. If they ever lose their job for any reason, the hotel will take them back under their wing and provide for them until another type of employment can be found. I’m deeply impressed with the tour of the trade school and the fact that the benefits stemming from the cost of my room have lasting effects long after I am gone.

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Thai airlines must have missed the memo encouraging obscure luggage fares, shoddy service and projecting an air of generosity while handing out bags of peanuts. While spending the better part of 17 hours on a plane may not be my first choice when it comes to weekend entertainment, Thai certainly made the experience ~ dare I say ~ reasonably enjoyable. Seats that were not designed to force you into an obscure yoga position, a thick comforter and pillow for everyone (though it did eliminate that fun free for all past time where passengers wrestle each other for the flimsy coverings normally dropped on every third seat or so). Every seat was equipped with a touch screen entertainment monitor with enough movies, television and video games to turn me into a teenage boy. And best of all three edible meals to be selected from an honest to goodness MENU while attendants ran up and down the aisle practically non stop offering wine, cognac, water, juice and coffee. Thai is clearly unconcerned with disgruntled passengers committing mutiny since they casually also dumped large sets of shiny, sharp stainless silverware on us at each repast. Now I normally don’t need three different forks and knives while eating at home, so I certainly wasn’t about to start 30,000 feet in the air. However, it was reassuring to know you could arm yourself fairly decently if a skirmish ever broke out.

In practically less than a day (i.e. four movies, 3 books, several television shows and a ill advised round of Super Mario Brothers later) I sallied forth off the plane into the bustling humid metropolis of Bangkok, a city that makes Los Angeles look like a poster child for clean air. In no time at all, my friend John and I found ourselves checking in at our hotel, The Shangri La and grateful to find they had accommodations ready for us despite our arrival at such an early hour. In fact, if there is something this hotel prides itself on, it is accommodation. While $180 a night in the States may score you something along the lines of a Marriot with a free continental breakfast and pre made eggs, here at the Thailand Shangri La, a posh five star hotel on the river they provide you with your very own butler. Having stayed at this hotel on business many times, the hotel prides itself on always giving me the same butler, who has a stalker like ability to remember every detail about me. While I can’t deny it was lovely to have her knock on my door shortly after arrival with a fresh pot of coffee, Thai fruit and a croissant, it was a bit unnerving that she remembered I drink my coffee black, am allergic to bananas and asked after my colleague, BY NAME, that I had traveled with on a previous trip. But who am I to argue? After freshening up in a bathroom I could only dream of living in, John and I met for breakfast and decided that our jetlagged condition warranted a day of basically spoiling ourselves while exerting as little energy as possible.

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