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With our week in Phnom Penh behind us, Cher and I pack up and prepare to head to the airport for our flight to Siem Reap.  I’m feeling bittersweet at leaving the kids, but elated that the main goal and reason for my trip to Phnom Penh has been met.  Linna, my darling little artful dodger is safely off the streets for the first time in her life.  She is adapting well to life at the Aziza’s Place school and I can’t wait to return in January to see the progress she had made.

It is also the last leg of our trip that Cher and I have to transport the wheelchair/stroller for little Sum Nang.  True to form, we arrive at the airport, request to gate check the chair and receive the standard puzzled look because it is empty.  This time, they don’t ask where the child is – they wonder why I am letting Cher push her own wheelchair instead of riding in it.  They see she is wearing an AFO and assume the chair is for her.  Though fitting Cher in the chair would be like fitting me in another spa bra, without the profound embarrassments. (see spa blog for details!)

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After the daily chaos that was Phnom Penh, Cher and I have fallen into a comfortable routine.  First up is breakfast and coffee/tea.  “A caffeinated Cher is a happy Cher” my sister informs me.  She has taken to ordering a Coke Light with breakfast as well after telling me one sleepy afternoon that her caffeine has no tea in it.  The waiters at Shinta Mani hotel, where we are staying, are all graduates of the hotel’s hospitality school.  The hotel runs a bakery and restaurant training program for older street kids and then provides job placement for them when they graduate.  Many wind up working for the hotel and are all overly eager each day to show off their skills, including their English.  You have to be carefully not to glance in their direction while eating – otherwise, they materialize next to you eager to offer more water or simply chat your ear off.  Something we found out during our first meal with an overly friend young man named Lyda, apparently named by the Khmer Johnny Cash, perched himself at the edge of our table and didn’t leave the entire time we were eating.

After breakfast we are off to the orphanage via the Khmer Market.  The orphanage is woefully lacking not only in proper things for little Sum Nang, but for all the children.  Cher and I have become fixtures at the market, buying up powdered milk, baby items, diapers, formula supplements and other necessities.  I suspect there is another reason Cher loves the market.  On our first visit, she spied Mountain Dew in a cooler and nearly mowed me down in an effort to get to it.  I suspect an addiction….

Sum Nang is happily sitting up in his wheelchair when we arrive, ready to begin his morning exercises.  He is too cute for words are we go through with the Sisters and an amazing volunteer from Australia named Virgina his new daily regiment.  Virgina has agreed to stay in Siem Reap for the next six months to make sure that the new therapy and nutrition schedule that Cher has set up is actually followed through.  Though the nuns have good intentions, they also have 21 children and little help.  Spending so much time working with one child is really next to impossible for them.  I’m also grateful that my friends, Dr. Etolie Leblanc and Dr. Karen Froud from Columbia University, have agreed to provide additional assistance.  This morning, Etolie brought a swallow specialist to examine Sum Nang.  While he is being examined, I introduce Etolie to Baby Sum Nang – a 10 month old with a large growth between his eyes.  We’ve learned that the name Sum Nang means lucky – ironic since both of the boys named Sum Nang at the orphanage suffer from medical difficulties.  It turns out there is a small hole in his skull and fluid from his brain is leaking through to cause the growth.  It will need to be corrected surgically and Etoile and I discuss options that may be possible through Operation Smile.

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It’s our last day in Phnom Penh and Cher and I are overcompensating by trying to cram as much activity as possible into one day. Already the kids are guilt tripping me about leaving. Layseng has a football match Sunday morning and tells me she can only win if I am there. Catholic guilt – good in any country.

We get a very early start at CCF at 6:30 am sharp on the express request of Kaana, the CCF administrator who has been juggling our schedule this week. Every Saturday morning all the CCF kids head over to the Olympic Stadium for a free for all of pick up football games and socializing. However, Cambodia time is rather like Los Angeles time – no one ever actually pays attention to schedule. We don’t actually leave for another 45 minutes and I can’t help but think we could have squeezed in a coffee ahead of time. And trust me, Cher is wayyyyy more pleasant with caffeine. I pass the time playing football with the boys in the surprisingly pleasant early morning breeze.

In no time we are crammed 8 deep into a two person Tuk Tuk. All my kids want to ride with us and who are we to say no? I figure if the Tuk Tuk crashes, we are packed so tight it will be like wearing a seat belt. Hundreds of kids from various NGO pack the Olympic grounds and everyone spills out of the Tuk Tuk excited. The boys want me to join in a full fledged game but I use the handy excuse that I want to take pictures to get myself out of a situation where I am likely to wind up crawl fishing in the dirt with my tongue hanging out seizing from heat stroke.

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Thanks to the scorching Cambodian heat and humidity, my skin has seen better days. And frankly, sharing our bed with a colony of fire ants hasn’t helped. Cher and I have admittedly spoiled ourselves with the inexpensive options at the U and Me Spa next to our hotel. On our second to last night, we decide to take advantage of the “full” spa package: Citrus body scrub, steam room and 90 minute massage for a whopping total of $72 for both of us. Cher points out the irony of having a spa treatment prior to our visit to Stung Meanchy, the city’s garbage dump that we have on schedule for Saturday evening. Nonetheless, we sally forth to U and Me and are greeted warmly by the staff. Not surprising since we have been in there every day.

Our spa experience gets off to a less than auspicious start. Our two spa attendants show us to a room and ask us to strip down except for the oh so flattering paper panties that they have provided. “This isn’t so bad” I think, as they prepare to leave us to change when one of the girls exclaims, “Oh, I forget!” She dashes over to a cabinet drawer and proceeds to pull out a spa bra for each of us.

Let me add a disclaimer that the majority of the women here in Cambodia are, shall we say, a bit smaller in the chest region. And I, by virtue of some pesky DNA family traits, most certainly am NOT.

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TWHACK! I’m just about to drop off to sleep when a can of disinfectant, wielded by my bug-killing sibling, nearly takes my nose off in an attempt to kill the fire ant crawling perilously close to my face. Startled back awake, I shout “What the hell” just as Cher finally snaps and gives in to her bug/germ phobia that she has admirably kept in check since our arrival. TWHACK! ‘Where the hell are they coming from?’ she cries. TWHACK! ’27! 28! 29!’ Miss OCD helpfully informs me. I’m hacking madly through the haze of disinfectant she decides to spray all over the bed. ‘No more bugs!’ she shouts. TWHACK! “30! 31!” Suddenly we look at each other and both channel Jim Henson: “31! 31! Fire Ants in the bed! Ah-ha-ha-ha!”

Other than our bed bug infestation, it’s been a fantastic day. We headed over to CCF early in a Tuk Tuk that sounded like it has seen better days. Our driver made a move to cross a busy intersection and he ran out of gas halfway across. While he frantically pushed us out of the way, I eyeballed oncoming traffic that clearly thought we should look out for them. Thankfully, there is a gas station on the corner. And by gas station I mean a lady with a push cart and gasoline in old soda bottles. Our driver forks over a dollar and she hands him a coke bottle. Within moments, we are back enroute. We had plans to meet Chamroeun, a staff member at CCF at 9am for a trip over to the Stung Meanchy Nursery/Preschool. Children under the age of 6 are of particular risk at the dump because they are too young to work, but are left to their own devices while their families pick garbage. It is a familiar sight, one that I am sad to say I am familiar with, to see toddlers filthy and naked, playing and crawling through the garbage all alone. CCF started this Preschool to provide these vulnerable little ones a safe environment to be in during the day while their parents scavenge for trash. I was in Cambodia when the Pre School first opened and there were 18 kids. Today, when we arrive, the population has exploded to 78 ranging in age from infant to 6 years old. Every day they arrive at 8 am and are given showers and a set of clean clothing. They attend classes from 9-11 and then free playtime in the afternoon after nap before heading back home to the dump in the evening.

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After another vigorous round of football in the courtyard with my boys, including a game in which the losers had to do pushups, I’m in a Tuk Tuk headed back to the hotel feeling less than fresh. Between the humidity, pollution and sweat – I’m not exactly feeling at my best. Cher puts in all in perspective: “If I was sitting next to you at home, I’d be really offended. But since the city just smells so bad in general, you are not that bad in comparison.” She sweetly informs me.

It’s been a busy day. Cher and I were up very early and headed to a village just outside Phnom Pehn for a meeting with the head of The Sharing Foundation, a multi faceted organization/school that has an impressive track record in their 12 years of existence. 32 of their village born students have already graduated – from college. Cher and I are there because The Sharing Foundation also has several multi handicapped children with CP and we are hoping it may be a place we can move Sum Nang too in order to give him a better opportunity at a productive life. Like any NGO in Cambodia, space and funds are limited and only time with tell if our little CP boy will find a home here.

After our meeting, we are off to the Olympic Stadium where Charam is competing in a karate tournament. Our arrival is timely and the kids wave madly to us as we enter the building, making room in the “CCF” cheering section. Charam wins his first match up and I’m busting with pride. Allie from the Azazi’s Foundation is also there with some of her kids, so I shamelessly pester her for a report on how Linna did her first night. She tells me that Linna has been charming students and staff alike with her quick wit. She’s a charmer, just like her brother and I am feeling very positive about her placement there. I can’t wait till Friday when I can visit her again. We felt it was best to let her acclimate for a few days but it’s been less than a day and already I miss her.

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“I’ve never given much thought to how I am going to die” my little sister chirps at me as we careen along the streets of Phnom Penh at night, sans helmets on the back of a moto bike with a driver that cares little for such mundane concepts as road rules, construction zones or other moving vehicles. Out of habit, I simply have stopped looking in either direction. If I am going to get broadsided by a Tuk Tuk and flung to my impending death, I’d rather not see it coming. The baby balanced on the handle bars of the moto bike zipping past us appears to not share my concerns but I don’t have time to contemplate this due to the fact I am nearly bounced right off the back due to an impromptu short cut over the rubble of a sidewalk under repair.

We’re heading back after an evening theatrical performance by the CCF kids. Just your standard, uplifting piece about life in Stung Meanchy, the city dump. That old adage – you write what you know is certainly in effect here. Scenes unfold on stage showing the day-to-day struggles that all of these kids know far too well. Scavenging, stealing – breaking open used bottles to try and suck moisture out of them. People dying and living with chronic illness and exhaustion. Even though the performance is in Khmer- a language barrier is nothing of the kind as the emotions onstage unfold. It’s too much for some of the kids watching the play. Layseng falls into my arms at the end sobbing. The main character in the play dies in the dump and I’m sure she is reliving the death of her uncle, who was run over by a bulldozer in front of her.

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Cher is finding Cambodia more civilized than expected ever since she discovered Twinning’s Earl Grey Tea is served at Fresco, the coffee shop on the corner below our hotel room. Our jet lag caused us both to collapse into bed fairly early and thus we were up and ready to go by 6am. Any of my friends could tell you that I am NOT a morning person and my brain usually doesn’t follow my body out of bed for at least 30 minutes. This morning, however, my mind is already working overtime. My lack of success finding Linna is weighing heavily on my mind. At 9am I am suppose to meet Allie, one of the director’s of Azazi’s Place, a art oriented school I was fortunate to be able to get Linna into on a full time live in basis. If I only knew where the hell she was. My great fear is that Yorn has left the city and my chance to get Linna into a permanent, safe environment will have passed me by.

By 8am, Cher and I have hopped into a Tuk Tuk for the short drive to CCF to see my other kids, including Charam, Linna’s older brother. We’ve barely pulled up at the gate when the kids playing in the courtyard catch sight of me and starting hollering that I’ve arrived. So much for the surprise visit I had planned – one of the teachers has spilled the secret and my little family is waiting with glee on the other side of the gate. Charam and Layseng are the first to hug me, smiles split our faces all around. Charam dashes off to find Nhagn and Meng Ly and Layseng heads off to find Leakhena and Lyda. The kids are scattered about the CCF’s spacious building. With summer holiday upon them, they are only in part time classes and all of them are taking advantage of the morning break.

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My poor little sister Cher, fresh off her return flight from Russia was barely coherent Friday morning at my house as we frantically packed for our trip to Cambodia.  After loudly complaining that it is unnatural and wrong for me to lack any product with a trace of caffeine, she begins the task of repacking our ridiculously overweight suitcases that are stuffed with toys and medical supplies.

It’s been only four months since I returned from my last trip to Cambodia when I happened into the orphanage in Siem Reap and into the life of 5 year old Sum Nang, the boy who has lived his whole short life on his back in a crib, unable to move on his own.  I’ve been unable to move him out of my mind and utterly anxious to move forward with some solutions for altering the quality of his life.  Communication has been limited these past few months. The nuns caring for him have taken a vow of poverty and I’ve had to rely strictly on hand written letters from the Mother Superior both for information and permission to return and help him.  With permission finally in hand and a tentative diagnosis as to his condition, we’re ready to move forward.

For the first time I am returning to Cambodia with a family member in tow.  My sister Cher is spending her only two weeks off dedicated to helping me with Sum Nang.  We’ve determined that he likely suffers from Cerebral Palsy and there is no one better equipped to assess his condition and help train the nuns in his proper care and treatment that Cher is.  For the past 15 years, she has been a full time caretaker/therapist for a young woman with CP and now she is using that wealth of knowledge to bring hope and help to a boy on the other side of the world.  We are also bringing with us a wealth of equipment, including a wheelchair/stroller that will allow Sum Nang to be able to sit upright in the room with the other children for the first time.

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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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