Palm Tree Orphanage

Hey, That's My Leg You Ran Over: Day 192

Five Guys, One Motorbike. Get Comfy.

On this final night in Cambodia, I adorned my trekking shoes for the first time in weeks and chaperoned an excursion to Phnom Penh's Water Festival near the river. I missed the main events of boating and races during the day, but the locals spoke of crowds that would stop traffic, which I was eager and willing to miss. Instead, I decided to take in the excitement with the older kids by foot in the evening. Evan, Zan (the other volunteer), and I stomped along the mile or two of road in between the orphanage and the riverbank, passing the vehicles alit on the road like we were reenacting Office Space. There was lots of hand holding, and people switched up often to grab my hand or Evan's or their close friend's in front. We were a group stepping in tune with each other and finding joy in being in the others' presences. It was another one of those moments when I was stunned how comfortable I was far away from my home bubble.

The water festival is timed to occur with a full moon, and this moon cast a glow over the city that rivaled the sun. As I write about this evening six months later, I write now knowing every full moon I've seen since reminds me of Cambodia's water festival and the evening amidst the nighttime light.

The streets went from scattered to bustling to impenetrable. We held hands like we were preparing for a round of Crack the Whip, but had we not, we were sure to lose a soul or two.

At one point, I actually had a motorbike advance up the back of my leg, impatient to wait for the hundred or so people standing in his way. I think I tried to give this man a "Hey, pardon me, but you just ran your motor vehicle over my calf" perturbed look but couldn't rotate my body or even head in his direction to make the gaze. I may or may not still have the tire mark on my pants.

We found ourselves within a block of the water but couldn't dare move in that direction for fear of getting our bodies crushed under the pressure of thousands more. Evan and the older boys turned towards the city and led us back the way we had come. Hours of walking got us to the heart of the traffic and nothing more.

We were bummed and opted for rickshaws back to the compound. But such an outing had to include some radical behavior, so we made the way back a ride to remember. I sat with six girls screaming at the top of their lungs to strangers on the road. Easily amused; my kind of people.

The youngins were still up and romping in the near daylight of midnight. I pulled out my camera and let them go to town with their photographic skills. Evan rode a two foot bike around with little girls shrieking in his wake. I sat in constantly shifting human piles of little kids and saw spots from all the camera flashes.

Litho, one of my strongest bonds in Palm Tree, sat cross-legged next to me as I tried to describe where I was going and what I was doing the next day onward. I gave up soon after starting and just focused on laughing at nothing but the sweetness around us. My last hugs were sad as some boys uttered the word "sister" in my direction; it became official, I was returning some day, hopefully soon.

I awoke at roughly 4:30am the next morning to a slowly warming sky and air damp with that morning anticipation I rarely get to witness personally. The cook was already awake and spooning out plates of breakfast, a few girls at her side on their turns to help the kitchen.

I knocked on Evan's door quietly at 5am to say my goodbyes to a guy that will forever be in my mind. I gave him a small sheet of paper with my number, e-mail, and home address, hoping he would be in touch with ground level news of Palm Tree on a regular basis. I also looked forward to a reunion in Chicago upon his return in July of 2009. I handed him my recently completed copy of Shantaram as he exchanged it for Mountains Beyond Mountains.

It was a pleasure to know that kid, and I'm still in shock of his sudden celestial departure. This, of course, was not something I was thinking about while we embraced that final traveler's embrace. I instead was thinking of time's little tricks and wondering when I would next be grasping this same man's shoulders; on what continent, after what amazing accomplishments on both sides have occurred? This bittersweet moment seemed sweet in real time and in hindsight should have been bitter to the last drop.

I found a way to finally get passed the gates of Palm Tree to the street beyond, hopped on a motorbike after an effortless haggle, and zoomed past Thai Chi demonstration after Thai Chi demonstration in the brisk morning air of sunrises. A hand slowly grasped and still continues to hold my arm in the direction of that city and that country; it was a tangible and evocative goodbye to Cambodia.

Chicken and Clams, Partying Khmer Style: Day 191

Palm Tree Hoodlums

Palm Tree Hoodlums

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.

The Grown-Up Party

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.

The Cheap Battle Against Scurvy: Day 190

After ten days of teaching in classrooms, drawing cartoons, tutoring English, pushing swings, riding bikes too small for me, picking up from school, playing in the rain and watching TV while intertwined in a human pile, I finally felt comfortable taking my camera out of my room and clicking photographs of the kids I lived with. I guess I had the luxury of time on this leg to experience first and document later, but there were so many moments I wished I had captured digitally up until this point. But that was not the point. With only two days remaining in my Palm Tree experience, my place at the orphanage had solidified as much as it could in that span of time. I prioritized the friendships above the visual memories and even the written records because that was the sole reason for making this detour to Cambodia. It wasn't to be a white knight and put up a barrier between the kids and myself.

I didn't want to muddy my intentions for being at Palm Tree by pulling out my wallet and strutting the streets like Daddy Warbucks. There's no doubt I have enough personally to donate, but the trick is finding the right time and purpose that reflects my heart's place. All this travel made me ultra-sensitive in the act of gift-giving and honoring the dignity of the gift-receiver.

Spending multiple days eating next to these kids, filling up with rice and anchovy-sized fish on occasion, I realized my concern centered on their basic needs, like nutrition. One day, while walking outside the orphanage's salmon walls, I passed a small mart that sold apples. It took a lot of gestures, poor attempts at speaking Khmer, the involvement of passing Palm Tree children, and smiles to make the vendor understand what I wanted: 100 apples at her best price for the kids down the street.

The cost was $12.

I wanted the act of distribution to be as anti-climactic as possible and asked the cook to put them on their dinner plates. Of course, Cambodians cannot help but be grateful, appreciative and polite, and every child approached our little pagoda during dinner to thank me with a bow that displayed a sense of formality so easy and natural to them.

Evan reminded me of a market down the street that would offer a better selection of fruit and possibly better prices. I took three or four little boys with me the next day (and by took, I mean as I walked towards the orphanage gate, they ran up to see if they could tag along on the mini-adventure, skipping and holding my hand the whole way). As I took every step with such care as to avoid mud and piles of trash, the boys romped around without shoes (as they preferred to be) like we were in a field of marshmallows.

A lady with a heaping pile of green oranges caught my eye, and I sent young Vishna to discuss a sale of 100 juicy orbs. After getting a price quote, he came over to ask for roughly $10, and I gave him the equivalent in Cambodian riel. The vendor began packing her massive bag full and a few nearby ladies offered her their hands in the counting.

A few minutes passed, and Vishna came back with three more dollars because she realized she overcharged. One look at the vendor, and I felt this subtle moment of sweetness and good standing in their community. It was an honest view into a seemingly rough city most foreigners can only hope to glimpse.

$7 for 100 oranges. And to think I've bought a cocktail for more than that.

The Transition to Useful: Day 187

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As often as one would see a road sign or a mailbox on the highway in America, in Cambodia, one sees the reoccurrence of signage displaying political loyalty: Cambodian People's Party, Funcinpec, and oodles others adorning the mouths of people's driveways. Besides these brilliant blue beacons, all the world is green. Families construct roadside eateries and offer a good meal to any motorist en route. On this stretch of road connecting Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the world looks to be a cross-pollination between tropical farm villages and elegant stretches of undisturbed patty fields. The TV on board the vocal little bus resonated melodious Khmer tunes along with karaoke music videos, which everybody seemed to love. I couldn't bother looking much at the screen with such a wonderland going by. It was a beautiful ride, aside from the sporadic, nonsensical horn usage, but I happily sat back and crunched on over-flavored Pringles and roadside spiral pineapple, enjoying strong tastes for the first time since the wicked gastro-spell.

Upon reaching the capital of Cambodia, I sat waiting in the misty spray of the open-air bus station. For the first time in seemingly ages, I was expecting someone. The relentless taxi drivers attempted to snatch me up for business and take me to a location I had vague and confusing directions to; however, I trusted the warnings of volunteer coordinator, Jennifer, and stayed put until they eventually came to find me.

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Evan, Zan, a Palm Tree worker, and a Palm Tree child (both with names I'd rather not butcher by wrongfully spelling here) found me negotiating with a motor bike driver, and I was relieved to see my name printed on a sheet in their hands and hear the American twang in their voices. We rode to the orphanage and exchanged the initial conversation points (I being incredibly excited to be around people who spoke English and they looking forward to a new volunteer to enlighten the dynamic) before finally rolling up to the salmon-colored walls of the oasis.

The immediate hugs upon reaching the Palm Tree Orphanage warmed more than just my arms and legs. That kind of human contact was something my body and mind felt deprived of, without me being consciously aware of it. This establishment is often visited by Americans and Western volunteers, and the kids have learned what to expect from some of these visits. Some bring mad amounts of gifts to be distributed to those they connect with most. Others are there for the long haul to make a real impact in their lives, and vice versa. I came to make some friends, get a feel for the place (Palm Tree and Cambodia), and offer up my skills and services for the greatest amount of good. It was interesting to see how my relationships with the kids evolved after that first meeting.

I don’t believe in traveling the world to kiss babies. And I don’t immediately pity and coddle kids just because they are kids or because they are “less fortunate” than I. When I meet someone, I hold them to the same standards as I do any new acquaintance; if they have a good soul, they are a part of my circle. And even if they hide their character behind real angst, the gut instinct detects the good nature that allows humans to connect beyond language and cultural barriers.

Upon getting to my beautiful shared room with a bed and AC, there was an immediate concern to wash some clothing, seeing as I had absolutely no items ready for wear that wouldn't require a Hazmat crew to unfold. The ladies at the orphanage insisted that I fill a laundry basket and let them do the work. I refuted it a little before realizing it would probably be offensive to do it myself when they offered.

Our first meal in the little pagoda was a chance for Evan and Zan (real name Susannah, but none of the kids could swing that name around regularly) to explain how this place works. Out of the corner of my eye, I checked out the kids as they simultaneously gave me the once over. There was a definite dynamic and strong, preexisting relationships between the orphanage, the kids, and the American vagabonds, and I had to figure out how I would mesh into it without disturbing the "chi".

That night, as the sun set hard over the city, a busload of SASers pulled up to the gates. The fall voyage of Semester at Sea had docked in Saigon, Vietnam that week, and a select few students made the jaunt to Cambodia on a school-sponsored trip to see Angkor and the Palm Tree. My voyage (Spring 2007) was the first to frequent Palm Tree as an experience, which is how I came to find out about this place, and the odd sense of deja vu that swept over me upon seeing the next generation of globetrotters was more like time-travel than anything else. As most of the students came charging into the mob of children blowing kazoos and spraying silly string, one girl approached me as I stood to the side, under an overhang out of the rain, and asked if this was my orphanage. I laughed and told her I got here about four hours before she did. "I'm just getting into the swing here."

"You look so familiar! Have you been on Semester at Sea before?" "Yeah, Spring 2007. It's so weird to see you guys coming through here; I was you over a year ago!" "I SAW YOUR VIDEOS! I knew I wanted to do Semester at Sea a year before we left, and I did intense YouTube research on all the ports. I watched all your videos and remember you had two good friends: a really cute boy and a really tall girl." "Ha, wow, I just traveled with them in June in Europe! That's Alexis and Garrett. This is so odd that you know who the are..."

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It's encounters like this, and the experience of actually going around the Earth's circumference ever so slowly, that constantly and continually inspire me to say, "It really is a freaking small world."

Upon day one, my purpose at Palm Tree was tested. The volunteer setup is completely based around what you want and are willing to do by your own initiative. I began by just hanging out with some kids and becoming a part of their dynamic. I sprawled across a table and started coloring something that would get them interested in me, but when my buddy, Sal, tested me in an effort to apprehend the community crayons for himself, I had to take the first-day-babysitter stance and show them I saw past the cute eyes and teardrops. I knew he was aiming to see how far he could go with my naivety to get what he wanted. I stood firm, and he wandered around the grounds crying to everyone that he “really loved crayons.” Later that evening before bed, he emerged from the depths of his dorm to sit by me, timidly before snuggling up to my side. He was my boy for the rest of the stay.

Scars and quiet faces. Burn marks and troubled pasts. One would never know what happened to these kids before they came to Palm Tree unless one of the administrators opened up the filing cabinet. These children don’t exude pity or anguish. They fall down, scrap their knees and get back up to laugh some more. They crawl up your leg as if you were a tree in order to give you the biggest hug and kiss they can muster. They play in the monsoon rains with their bikes, metal lids, and each other, and even though their diets don't consist of protein shakes or much calorie-packed sustenance, the energy levels never die from 5am when they rise to 9pm when their final giggles disappear in the air of Phnom Penh.

My arrival coincided with a major switch in the academic regimen, one that made me do an Austin Powers ankle-flicking jump when I realized the massive teaching manual I lugged around the world would come to good use. Cambodian children attend half-day government school, where they wear uniforms and speak in their local language of Khmer. The lucky kids at Palm Tree are also provided supplemental education for the other half of the day, where they attend classes on the grounds with teachers employed by the foundation.

These classes, once conducted in Khmer, were now being changed to an American school system and taught in English. Middle/high school textbooks printed in Kansas and the Great Plains were photocopied and dispersed to the children, the younger ones receiving the earlier chapters with the older students only getting the latter chapters of the book, without the introductions to vocabulary they didn't know. The teachers also understandably had a rough transition ahead of them, now challenged to teach subjects like math and history in a language they may or may not be fluent in. Evan, Zan, and I spent our days trying to offer as much support as we could possible give.

On the first day of the new system, Evan and I walked into a classroom filled with kids and lacking a teacher for that session. Seeing that their schedule said “Chemistry” and the textbooks went far above their heads, we created a dynamic lesson off the cuff by pouring water on the floor, knocking everything solid in the room, and squeezing ice cubes until they melted on their hands. While I tried to draw a propane tank on the whiteboard, Evan ran out to buy supplies on the street: powder for orange drink, a chunk of ice, a balloon, water bottles, and other teaching essentials.

By the end of the class, the kids learned that chemistry was about liquids, solids, and gases, and Evan and I were pooped, yet invigorated by the idea that we taught kids about science in a language they didn’t know. Those little successes every day, every hour made me feel so alive and needed in this world. I attended every class I could, eight a day, until the kids went on vacation.