Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cambodia part four: Ghosts

Cambodia Blog Four: The Emergence of Ghosts
Sunday November 21st

Saturday was another explosion of beauty and joy. Perhaps it is the contrast that brings the ghosts into such sharp detail in my memory. The one surreal moment in a day too good to believe. I will cease my enigmas and explain:

On Saturday we met five of the children after their swimming lesson to take them to the water festival. (More on this festival in a later blog. This one, however, is about the children.) They were infectiously happy, delighted to be out and excited to see the boat races which continue constantly down the river throughout the three day festival. We walked down to riverfront, each with a child clinging to one hand. Winding our way through a river of people, techo music competing from loudspeakers, venders with brightly colored animal balloons and pinwheels and absurd hats, we eventually came to a restaurant whose rooftop patio overlooked the river. We ordered ice cream and took pictures and watched the boats race two at a time down the river, guessing which one would cross the finish line first.  Then we all meandered back past the palace to a huge playground, absolutely overrun with children! The kids dashed off, laughing and climbing and running. To see them so happy is the most beautiful thing in the world.

And here enter the ghosts. The children had been playing hard for quite some time, and came back to the bench were the adults had camped out to drink water and drape themselves across our laps. We had been attracting odd looks all day, our little cluster of white people of various nationalities each with our small brown child. But while we sat resting we attracted our first audience. A few dirty children simply stopped what they were doing and stood and stared, and suddenly the few have become a cluster of almost two dozen filthy staring children, so many they completely blocked out the view of the playground. I got chills looking at them, barefoot with ragged hair and clothes in various stages of falling apart. They were what our well groomed, educated, sweet NFC kids could have been. Have been. I was watching the reflection of an alternate life, without one stroke of luck. I think our kids felt this too. The normally vivacious ten year old Ting Tong shrank against me, and stayed mute to their questions. This reflection is still too close to his reality. His left cheek is marked with a huge X shaped scar. He is missing hair from scars dotted across his scalp. The more I get to know then children the more scars I find.

While I tried to come away with our brush with the ghosts happy that the children have escaped this fate, I am always drawn into a maelstrom of grief and rage when I think about what they have suffered. Most of the ‘orphans’ in Cambodia still have a living parent. They are refuges from abuse, from starvation, from prostitution. They are haunted.

I cannot save them. I cannot punish those that hurt them. I can only tighten my arm around Ting Tong when he was confronted with street children.

I can only love them. It is not enough, but it will have to be.


  1. Most of us are able to hide from the reality of what you are seeing. We live our normal, western lives holding the horror outside of our consciousness. The closest most of us will get is the pleas for donations we receive in the mail for desperate children or the glimpses of poverty on the TV news. I wonder what you will bring away from your experience in Cambodia and how it will change your life and your future.

  2. Your reflections immediately took me back to our time in Burma. The "ghost" that still haunts me is seeing undernourished children staring through the fence into our yard where well-fed, well-clothed American children played tennis.
    Carolyn Rodenberg