After seeing a film about orphans in northern Uganda, my parents felt moved to donate funds for the kids at Palm Tree. For about two weeks, I asked the administrators, teachers, and Evan what was lacking there or what needed additional funding to occur on the ground level. As the days passed, my interest in their nutrition fed a desire to hook them up with a big ol' feast of protein. I had one of the older kids translate my intentions to the head cook, a sweet lady who seems to do little else but clean dishes and boil more rice. She looked at me with the softest face and hugged me, nearly made me cry.
We soon hopped into a rickshaw with three or four older kids in tow and headed to the local version of a super Kroger. Open air, piles of food lining every walking path and lane, not one foreigner in sight.
The older kids held my hand or hooked elbows, making it a bit difficult to navigate over the trash rivers and around coasting motorbikes. I wasn't sure what compelled them to stay so close, whether a cultural habit, sign of appreciation or friendship, or fear of getting run over. Whatever the reasoning was, I was slowly feeling my American citizenship seep from every sweating and content pore.
Every wet step concerned me with thoughts of the substances now on my feet. Innards hung from the umbrellas in the open market, and I had to watch my head for fear of slapping it into a cow face. The cook decided upon a vendor and began weighing out chickens with their bare hands.
I couldn't bare to watch the food handling methods: grab the yellow skins to be weighed, drop it in a sack, wipe the brow, handle some money, shake hands, grab another chicken and whack its wings off with an effortless cleave. I handed the money to one of the kids and stepped back to avoid the flying bits. I guess I have my limits. What a nancy of a carnivore, I am.
We picked up some oil, seasoning and veggies and found our rickshaw waiting for us on the madhouse of a street. I reminded the cook on our drive back that I wanted all the food to go to the kids and none to reach the volunteer pagoda. This wasn't a meal for us. This obviously hit silent refusal as she was already conjuring an elaborate image in her head of our meal for later. I assume she thought it insulting to not make us food in appreciation, and she surely wanted to express her cooking abilities now that she had something more exciting to work with.
The meal was delicious, and the kids thanked me again with incredible formality. And the we threw that formality out the window.
The administrators pulled out and stacked speakers that reached heights above my head, and the kids began dancing on tables to versions of "Beautiful Girls" dubbed in Khmer. Their moves were awesome: sometimes organic, always repetitive, and often a duplication of a previous volunteer's dance routine.
I, for some reason, didn't feel like dancing much, which was probably because all eyes were on me, ready to mirror my image. I busted a few moves, a quick robot and wave sequence, which stunned some and caused them to practice for the remainder of the evening.
Soon into the event, Evan pulled me aside and brought me to the area of the compound where some teachers and admins live. One of the resident ladies had a baby that week and was now having a welcome home party with family and much of the Palm Tree staff. Tables were littered with beer cans and all the clams one could hope for.
I forget if I spoke much or even what was said around the table. I graciously accepted a little boxed wine from Evan and tried to psych myself out enough to try a marinated clam in front of me. The surrounding men were popping them like Orville Redenbacher.
And with each cheers, everyone was required to chug whatever drink sat in front of them. Cambodians sure love to drink; unfortunately, not many can hold their alcohol well. This resulted in some hilarious and awkward encounters with men who stared and smiled in my direction for lengths too long to be casual.
I couldn't handle the late hours the kids were willing and ready to reach with their dance party antics. The volume the speakers hit made it very evident there was no neighborly rule or law stating loud noises and music weren't tolerated. The windows and doors in my room reverberated with every bump of the base.
I retired early to finish reading my Shantaram novel and prepare myself for the everyday early wake-up. Within minutes of a full blown dance party, speakers shut off and returned to their storage areas while women and children hung their mosquito nets and fell into deep sleeps on their wooden platform or the cool linoleum floor.