Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Last Day in Phnom Penh, and to the Greater Hope Orphanage!

As I type this, it's 2am, a couple of roosters are competing and I'm sitting upright on the bottom of a modest single bunk-bed, surrounded by a pink mosquito net and pink cartoon sheets. There is no more electricity past 10, I have a flashlight that I had to search blindly for in my bags, which graced my way to the bathroom where I was drawn to for obvious reasons, but then almost ghastly scared away from after hearing a sudden rustling near the window. It turned out that it was just a giant gecko...

Today was exhausting, but extraordinary. We woke up at 9am to get everything accomplished before making our way to the orphanage. We passed through at least three or four different markets and supermarkets, with smaller vendors on the way. Kit and Ream wanted to bring food back to the kids as well as take us to the various wholesale markets to buy goodies and souvenirs. In one indoor market, 4x4 booths were crammed with their neighbors as well as with the items they were selling. A lot of them sold bulks of plastic toys from China or candy, clothes, fabrics, spices, dried goods (including frogs, squid, fruits and other things I couldn't always decipher), hardware, shiny costume jewelry and all sorts of stuff you could probably find in a Chinese or Asian market in the States or in Europe (but for triple the price). At the second market I bought some regional goodies to bring back as souvenirs: some prayer beads like I like to wrap around my arm, little brass buddhas, chopsticks, t-shirts and such. Taking photographs in the markets is always a lot of fun, they're extremely photogenic and the vendors themselves are usually happy to strike a pose or offer their babies to the Western paparazzi. At the supermarket, I was very excited about buying avocados and nuri seaweed, which I hadn't yet seen and I snapped a photo of a teenager who was wearing a t-shirt that said "WILL FUCK FOR COKE." She obviously had NO idea what the t-shirt said and I actually felt really bad for not having told her. I still do.

On our way to the orphanage, which is in a rural area about an hour and a half outside of Phnom Penh, we stopped at the Killing Fields to get a first-handed history lesson, plentiful of goosebumps. The Killing Fields was like a Cambodian dobbledanger of Auschwitz - where General Pol Pot tortured, imprisoned and killed hundreds of thousands of people under his genocidal regime in the 1970's. Intellectuals, artists, mothers, babies - none were spared of his deadly agenda and some of the horror stories are overwhelmingly repugnant. As we walked through the fields, you can see hip bones literally scattered under the dirt, molars making surface here and there and clothes that you could probably tug on a bit and remove entirely from the earth. I will spare you from some of the torture methods I read about, but know that this extreme event has not left Cambodia unscarred. However, it unfortunately has left a weekend Cambodia with less educated people and a less structured society, in the rebuilding.

After that last stop, we were finally on the road. With all of our luggage and shopping bags piled into the back of a station wagon, we had an hour's drive through rural Cambodia to sit back and cool off from the open windows. Like any decent New Yorker, 'sitting back' is not something I particularly do, so I had my head and camera stuck out of the window the entire time trying to capture bits and pieces of the countryside, fighting the harsh light that seems to reign until 4:30pm here.

As we pulled up to the orphanage, we were greeted by a big bush of pink and orange flowers and a doggy named Lion who was in desperate need of affection - apparently kids don't particularly play with dogs here. As we unloaded our bags, two of the MOST ADORABLE little boys came rushing over: Jo and Sam, Kit and Ream's 3 and 5 year old sons. Ream has promised to find me a Cambodian baby-daddy because my future kids NEED to look like that. As we settled, I got to meet most of the kids, some who were just getting in from school, others who were doing light chores and playing volleyball. These kids are not only extremely beautiful on the outside, but they are the most kind, gentle and humble set of minors I've ever met in my life. For people who have been through the loss of parents and subjected to crippling poverty and illness at such a young age, they are bountiful of joy and laughter and extremely cooperative, playful and diplomatic towards each other. I've never seen children so blessed with light and so void of spite. They all seemed excited about the new visitor, especially with her camera at hand - particularly Joe who has demonstrated a deeper love for modeling.

After learning (and trying to remember) the names of most of the kids, Courtney took me on a tour around the compound. The entire grounds are put to good use, including for harvesting and treating manure, culturing earth worms, raising piglets, catfish and big birds (turkeys, roosters, geese, etc.), and entertaining the kids with a volleyball court and a jungle gym. At the top of the house there is a beautiful view of its surroundings and capturing the sunset was a highlight. We stay in a smaller room within the girl's room, which is comprised of 8 bunk beds all decorated with pink mosquito nets. The boys room looks the same, but the mosquito nets are blue. Some of the kids prefer to sleep directly on the hard wood of the bed, less the mattress, because that is what they're used to.

Before eating dinner at 6pm, we played some foot tag, watched some volleyball, stepped in some mud, got bitten by red ants and made a plan for tomorrow's photo shoot. Initially, Kit invited me here to shoot portraits of each child to update their current ones as well as to make calendars with and send out to sponsors, who are basically responsible for the entire funding of the orphanage. I wanted to take the shoot to another level and so I brought loud and crazy fabrics and scraps from the States to use as backdrops. I'm hoping the kids will get a kick out of it.

After dinner, I sat in the main room to get some editing done, but the boys were so intrigued by the computer that they piled up behind me staring at every move and click. I took the opportunity to show them my mom on Skype and Photobooth (a Macintosh program that allows you to take photos and distort your face), and we could not have had MORE fun!! The kids were CRACKING up, it was awesome.

By ten, the generator is shut off and everyone is in bed. I slept for a few hours and got woken up by the rooster. It's now 2:45am and I'll probably be up editing for the next hour or two.

Overall, after day 3 it's one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. I'm excited for another 32 of incredible adventures!

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