Something huge happened at Phter Koma Children’s Home today. A small brother and sister, both HIV+ and both from drastic circumstances, entered the home and will be spending their first nght with the other children. The house has been prepped, with children aware that their carers expect only kindness towards their new housemates, a new bunk bed for the boys to make room for everyone, school enrolments, etc. On Friday a lone small girl will be delivered by her grandmother and become our 15th resident. Her slightly older brother, also orphaned, is HIV negative and grandmother is “sending him to the pagoda”, ie he will become one of Cambodia’s many tiny monks, who are placed in pagodas around the country by families unable to provide them with proper care. Phter Koma has reached capacity, licenced for only 15 children. I can’t imagine what it’s like for these kids, to suddenly be ripped out of their village lives, placed into a group home, attend school regularly and have three meals a day. It saves them in one way, but it rips them from their identity in another.
I’m not there to meet them as I gave myself a holiday and am currently on the coast enjoying some R&R. I’ve been back in Cambodia for two months now and it’s been a busy time, lesson planning, teaching, attending meetings, writing policies, helping out on management strategies and various other Phter Koma-related work. I’ve enjoyed it but I reminded myself last week that I am actually on “holiday”. It is just as well that I did because no sooner had I smelt the ocean air, than an email landed from MSF, suggesting a short Zero Contract in Africa! I may be leaving as early as next week and so my planned travels are being cut short and I’ll head back to Kampong Cham in 2 days to pack and prepare for my departure. If it happens, my public health experience is about to broaden even more exponentially than it already has in recent times, this time in emergency relief and outbreak control. From there I plan on staying in Europe for some months, only returning to Cambodia near the end of the year, just before I’m due back at my job in Australia.
A particularly special thing happened the other day as I was leaving Skun. I caught a moto taxi to the bus station, planning to purchase my ticket to Kampong Cham where I needed to pick up a few missing things before heading away. The bus was full! Not sure what to do, I began the now-familiar highway walk back into town, knowing the offer of a lift would only take a few moments. Not 100 metres away from the bus station, a tuk-tuk with green floral curtains fluttering in the breeze and hiding the passengers from view, putted past me. Someone from behind the curtains called out “hello” and they came to a stop about 20 metres ahead of me. As I approached, the driver walked to the back of the tuk tuk and stood waiting for me, leaning comically onto the tin roof. Soon enough someone asked “daona?” (where?). Climbing in, between many chirans (thankyous), I replied “psa” (market).
His passengers were a woman of perhaps 35yo, her 5yo daughter on her knee having surrendered her seat for me, a 15yo son and 25yo nephew sitting opposite. The driver was the children’s father. My case was plonked onto the floor of the tuk tuk, removing all remaining floor space and the 15yo said in clear English “We go to Kampong Cham”. Oh! I want to go there too! “Yes”. This sealed the deal – I was going to Kampong Cham in the family tuk tuk! When I asked how much, Mum pointed to herself to indicate the cost was on her. This wasn’t acceptable, but I decided to deal with it on arrival, which I did without meeting any argument. Without further ado, off we chugged!
To have left the bus station at the exact moment I did, entering the busy highway not two minutes before a ride all the way home happened by, seemed miraculous. Before we reached Skun market, the 15yo said to me “do you want something?”. Unsure what he meant I replied yes, and he opened the lid from a polystyrene eskie on his seat, passing me a can of Coke! I declined, incredulous at their extreme hospitality.
My initial thoughts were that this was a wealthy family going on a long holiday. But as I contemplated the situation I realised the moto was struggling along at around 25km/h (it took us over 1.5 hours to travel the 40km distance) and that Dad was obviously a tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh. We struggled along in broken Khmer with some schooled English from the 15yo and I learned that they left home (Phnom Penh) at daybreak, were visiting a grandmother for the night, and returning to Phnom Penh the next day. This was not a wealthy family at all, but a typical Cambodian family with the benefit of their own tuk tuk for visits to far-flung family.
We stopped in at the nephew’s home to drop him off in a busy market town (Prey Toetung) halfway along. A small concrete home along a quiet dirt laneway off the main road, with many close neighbours but not especially poor, relatively speaking. I rang Chom to arrange a pick up at the temple pagoda serving their grandmother’s village, and he pulled in almost at the same time. A quick transfer between tuk tuks and off we went in our respective directions, promising to see each other next time I am in Phnom Penh.
Already high from the prevous night’s wedding excitement, I was soaring after this very uniquely Khmer experience. If the new children at Phter Koma receive even half this degree of hospitality from their seasoned housemates, then everything will be okay.