Displaced Yankee Productions | 2010 | January
Archive for January 2010

Our last full day in Cambodia has been one of mixed emotions.  So much has been accomplished these last few weeks and yet I feel I am leaving with tasks undone.  Wonderful connections with a variety of different organizations have come to fruition.  The scope and mission of Safe Haven has become more refined and defined and I am anxious to more forward.  Two years in not a long period of time in which to build a handicap school, staff it and be ready to open our doors but two years also seems like an eternity when I want Sum Namg out of the orphanage and under our care tomorrow.  Already, I am making plans to return in March to follow up with meetings and leads I was not able to follow this trip.

Cher bounces out of bed and is already chirping her breakfast song at me before my eyes have actually opened.  She is in good humor despite the fact the damn rooster outside our window had been crowing since 3 am.  Tonight at Shinta Mani they are having a special “Wild Life” BBQ and we are both half hoping rooster will be on the menu along side the Young Bees, Sweet and Sour Ant Soup, Frogs on the Grill and Crocodile Filets.  We amble down to our breakfast table pleased to find it empty.  Yesterday, another couple had the audacity to sit at our table and we discovered in the morning we don’t like change to our routine.   Cher orders tea and actually gets it.  The last couple of mornings I’ve order a mocha latte because the young hospitality staff at Shinta Mani, former street kids learning the hotel trade, simply LOVE to use the espresso machine.  They get so excited when you order a coffee drink and they are able to show off their newly acquired barista skills.  In fact, they’ve gotten so enthusiastic that every time I order one, they bring a 2nd for Cher, despite the fact she keeps ordering tea.  We don’t have the heart to correct them.

Sated from my yummy breakfast of Cambodian pancakes with raisins and honey (I wonder if the poor bees that produced the honey are the same ones being featured on the “wild bbq menu later”) we saunter out the door and hop into a Tuk Tuk to head to Krousar Thmey –the school for deaf and blind kids.  The school is beautiful and we are both very impressed with our tour.  It turns out that the new Khmer sign language is basically French sign with a couple of random cultural Khmer signs thrown in for good measure.  This discovery has a plus in that my sister can sign in French.  Within moments of starting our tour, she is attracting attention.  She signs through the windows of some classrooms with various kids and silently, the word is spreading: There is a pale, white woman wandering around who knows Khmer sign!  Class ends and Cher is engulfed by a sea of deaf kids all frantically conversing with her in sign while they touch her white skin and marvel.  All except one boy who thinks white skin is pretty ugly.  He gets whapped on the side of his head for that comment (by another boy, not Cher).  We learn that the teachers all go through a 6-week crash training course in Khmer Sign to become instructors.  I had been hoping we could send our deaf disabled students for classes at Krousar when Safe Haven opened, since they were already the leading facility/school for the deaf.  However, they do not take kids with other handicaps and they only allow teachers who are going to teach for them to go through the training course.  The woman giving us the tour thinks I should be able to persuade the organization to allow my teachers to take the course.  I agree and resolve to get this accomplished.

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Pierre, Roman and Soloth pull up in a van they have engaged to take us out to the village of Smatch and a neighboring village for both handicap assessment of CP children there and to see the work being done by CFI on the mosquito net factory.  Hasan and Lauren are already comfortable in their seats and Hasan, God love him, has brought bags of freshly baked chocolate croissants for the 2 hour drive.  Cher, Lina and I pile in and we have exactly 45 minutes of smooth sailing before we leave the main highway and being the rest of the journey on the barely there roads out into the villages.  The van is rocking and rolling like a carnival ride – the kind where you are sure the ride is going to fly apart at any given moment.  Cher has wisely planned ahead and is wearing a patch for motion sickness.  Hasan and Lina are feeling the effects and both are concentrating very hard on not throwing up.  Lina and I smash into each other so often that we give up our continual apologies to each other.  On the way to the first village – which shall remain nameless due to my inability to speak or spell the name, Saloth gives us the run down.  We will meet with a family there with 7 children, 4 of whom have CP.  We are planning on doing an evaluation on each child and speaking with the family about their experiences in an effect to better understand the role Safe Haven can play for these children.  HIB – Handicap International Belgium, has been working outreach with this family and many like theirs in these remote villages.  Unfortunately, in 2011 HIB lease will be up and they will cease operations.  We want to help fill the huge gap that will follow in any way we can.

The family welcomes us into their hut and Cher is shocked to see a Stander – a piece of equipment that assists CP children with standing.  It is made of local materials and has a simpler design than ones in the United States. It is also just as effective and frankly, a fraction of the cost at $100 compared to thousands in the USA.  We discover HIB manufactures them here in Cambodia and file that helpful bit of information away.  Cher and I sit on the floor of the hut while the rest of our group quietly observes.  Cher begins her assessment starting youngest (at age 5) to oldest (at age 20).  All of the children are vastly smaller than they should be and we are actually shocked to learn their real ages.  The five year old, whom Cher keeps referring to as “she” despite the fact he is naked from the waist down looks so young we kept referring to him as the baby.  Cher defends her gender identification abilities by pointing out he is wearing a yellow dress and they have put hair clips in his hair.  I point out the penis and think I have the stronger case.

Cher and I spoke with the family about their history and then Cher did full exams of the kids while I took detailed notes. All four of these kids will eventually be students at Safe Haven and they are part of our preliminary study to help us understand the range of issues we will be facing. The CP in this family ranged from mild to very severe. The youngest at 5 was the mildest case. The 10-year-old girl could not walk but had good use of her upper body and head.  The 16 year old boy who was the size of a 7 year old was the worst, mostly because he clearly also showed signs of autism. Their 20-year-old boy, SO tiny. His lower body completely deformed from a life of sitting in a twisted position not being able to move his lower body. His spine and back have followed suit. NONE of the children are verbal and could articulate any words, though the 16 year old had developed basic set of grunts his parents understood to mean different things. Most impressive was the 20 year old who count do basic math and completely understand verbal language, as well as draw a circle with his deformed hands suggesting excellent motor control. And he learned all this on his own twisted up in his body in a hut in a poverty stricken village. Imagine his potential with a full time care facility with therapy and a chance for actual education! I left feeling very encouraged about the positive impact the school can have.

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3 a.m. – someone who has NOT gotten the memo I am in Cambodia and is calling my cell phone jolts me awake.  Excellent.

5. a.m. My friend Lane sends me a message that I have accidentally pocket dialed his voice mail for 4 minutes from Cambodia.  That is the last time I try to turn off my phone at 3 a.m.

6 a.m.  Cher and I give up and get out of bed.  Who needs the extra sleep anyway?  How hard can it be to take care of 24 toddlers?

Lina, Cher and I arrive at the orphanage and are nearly run over by 50 Korean tourists who are tromping all over the facility like it is an ancient temple with little people on display.  Poor Sum Namg is on the floor with a dozen people surrounding him and staring.  He starts to cry and Cher swoops in to rescue him.  I pick up one little guy who doesn’t look thrilled with all the attention being directed his way and several people try to pluck him right out of my arms but he burrows deep against me and refuses.  I hear blood curling screaming from inside: one very tiny girl who is afraid of people has about 7 teenagers all around her in a corner.  I explain her fears and they thankfully move away.

We had brought some play dough and other activities with us but it is not practical with the amount of chaos reigning so we opt instead to break out the juice boxes from Khmer Market.  Suddenly, all the toddlers break free and gallop over to us.  Dehydration is a serious issue – they do not take in enough water each day, evident in the fact that they hardly wet their diapers at all.  Lina and I cannot break open the packages fast enough.  They are clamoring for the juice and are drinking them down faster than we can hand them out.  I am grateful I bought extra and still wish I had more.  Within minutes, we are handing out 2nd juice boxes to the kids and they are sucking them down eagerly.  One boy spills some juice on the floor and Hasan arrives in time to pluck another girl off the spot where she is licking the spilled juice up with her tongue.

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I’ve just come back into my hotel room jacked up like Cher on a 12 pack of Mountain Dew.  It’s been a great morning.  Normally, I take my Cambodian kids out shopping together for new clothes and lunch but I’ve decided this trip to focus more on spending time together and less on “presents.”  The change of venue thrills the boys, for whom shopping with the girls is its own form of slow torture.  Instead, we head to a nearby boutique villa for a morning of swimming in the pool.  The hotel allows outsiders to use their facility as long as you buy breakfast or lunch.  Considering I have 6 hungry teens and Lina, who frankly, EATS like a teen, I don’t think that will be a problem.  Within moments of arriving, all the kids have changed into their swim clothes and are in the pool screaming with laughter.  I am wearing a bathing suit, shorts and a tee shirt so as not to make the kids uncomfortable.  Modesty here dictates that even a one-piece bathing suit is too risqué for them.  Lina is giggling so loudly it is infectious and makes all of us laugh as well.  The boys and I race from one end of the pool to the other and this old lady surprises them (and myself) by coming in 2nd in both races.  I teach them to play chicken, which they think is great fun.  Layseng is on my shoulders and nearly strangles me in an attempt to stay on.  Management comes over and asks us to quiet down ‘just a little bit’ and I can’t help but grin and think we are just like any other noisy family of kids staying at the hotel – a far cry from the streets and the dumps where they grew up and survived.

The next new game I teach them is Marco Polo and they think is this a blast too.  Lina is a bit of a give away because she can’t stop giggling so it makes the person carrying her (me) an easy mark.    I toss her into Layseng’s arms just as Meng Ly comes towards to me to avoid detection.  J

After a few hours of joyous fun, we tromp over to the patio tables and order some lunch.  Meng Ly grabs my camera and the boys show off in front of the camera with silly poses with their towels.  I make a mental note that swimming is the new standard activity over shopping for the foreseeable future.  Lunch complete, the kids change into dry clothes and we are off on the next special stop of the day: University Of Phnom Penh.

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According to Wikipedia, the average weight of an American man AND woman is around 164-167.  I mentioned this because the 3’x5’ coffin style elevator at our hotel says it can hold 6 people and 400kg.  After barely fitting Cher, three Asian guys and myself in it yesterday, I am here to tell you there is no way 6 big old Americans could cram themselves into that space, let alone fall within the weight range without the chance of said elevator plunging to the ground.  Frankly, it is likely it could plunge to the ground just on principal.  Just one of the ways Stupid Western Foreigners can die in Cambodia.

These are my thoughts as Vantha’s Tuk Tuk stalls yet again in the middle of a busy intersection and Cher is resolutely NOT looking at oncoming traffic in an effort to pretend vehicles are not coming perilously close.  Then a guy on a moto swipes by us taking Vantha’s side mirror with him.  It’s not like Vantha actually uses the mirrors anyway.  Briefly, earlier in the day, we had entertained the notion of traveling to the “Shoting Rang” a tourist destination advertised on a white placard in Vantha’s Tuk Tuk.  I ask him what it is and he happily shows me a colorful photo of some white guy trying to shoot an AK 47 in the middle of a field.  The rifle nose is up in the air as bullets spray forth and the guy looks like he barely has control of the weapon.  Behind him is a Cambodian Guide with a big smile.  No doubt because he cannot believe a Stupid Western Foreigner paid him $40 for the privilege to almost blow himself up with a decrypted, rusting weapon from the 1940’s.  We decide to forgo the experience – not the least is that we don’t believe Vantha’s Tuk Tuk can actually drive OUT to the countryside.

Besides, we have a taxi waiting for us to take us to Kampot to visit Epic Arts. Epic Arts provides a range of professional dance, drama, music and art programs to people of all abilities and disabilities in order to promote empowerment, integration and acceptance for deaf and handicapped individuals.  We hop into the car for the three-hour drive out to Kampot.  Cher is a bit apprehensive because she has never ventured outside the city and is familiar with my horror stories of traveling the roads in Cambodia.  As we drive off, we discover only one seat belt buckle in the back in working.  I tell Cher to buckle up.  She refuses.  I demand she buckle up in my “big sister voice”.  She refuses in her petulant “little sister” voice.  I play my trump card and tell her if she doesn’t buckle up, I will tell her boss, who is not happy that she is here in Cambodia in the first place.  She pulls her ace in the hole and announces she’ll tell Mom.  I relent and tie our seat belts together and clip us in.

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As usual the countdown to leaving for Cambodia involves a lot of scrambling, last minute packing and good old fashion swearing.  While I careened my jeep around Rose Bowl detours in Pasadena in an effort to get Cher and I to all the last minute stops we have to make, my little sister clutched the side of the door, eyed me warily and announced if she wanted to be involved in a crash – she’d much prefer to take her chances on the back of a moto in Cambodia.  By five o’clock, the car service was in the driveway, Cher was still in the shower and I was randomly tossing items into my suitcase that may or may not come in handy but I no longer had time to weigh the pros and cons of its inclusion.

I’ll fess up that I was dreading the flight just tiny bit.  Okay, maybe more than that.  My job requires constant travel and under most circumstances I can keep my deep seeded fear of flying in check. (Though my sister would be quick to point out that bad weather and propeller planes reduce me to a babbling pile of terror – what can I say?  I have an aversion to turbulence and traipsing about the sky in a child’s wind up toy) During long flights, I am aided by the smiling flight attendants and their never ending supply of wine and scotch in little plastic cups.  However, due to a pesky little lung infection I picked up as a souvenir in Cambodia last summer, I am still stuck on antibiotics and therefore cannot drink.  There’s no doubt about it.  These 22 hours are going to suck.

Cher apparently agrees because she pushing pharmaceuticals at me like Mary Poppins on crack.  She dives into her bag and comes up with a pillbox with an assortment of options.  “I only have one valium” she muses. “Maybe I’ll just take it and sleep so you don’t drive me crazy clutching the arm rests the whole way.”  I am sure there was a snappy retort to be made but I am trying not to look at her display screen, which is currently set to “pilot’s view.”  Cher thinks its great fun to watch the plane hurl down the runway and take off.  I find it utterly disturbing and am not reassured by the giant white arrows pointing THIS WAY in case the pilot was unsure what direction he is suppose to go.  I close my eyes and try to meditate through the sounds of Bing Crosby telling me to have myself a Merry Little Christmas though the Thai Air loudspeakers.

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