February 17th, 2008
There is kind of a long story behind this short little piece; there is something uplifting in it but like much of the experience here, it’s hard to stop at the surface. Look once and your eyes will be opened.
It starts with a girl in her early teens, she lived at Apsara Arts Association with a bunch of other kids ranging from something like 7 years to 22 years. Apsara teaches traditional Khmer music, dance, and singing. Their troupe has performed internationally.
So the girl gets sick; she has AIDS. They put her in the National Pediatric Hospital where her health improves, and then place her about 30 minutes outside the city in an AIDS orphanage run by nuns.
Molly Jester, with Stop Exploitation Now, funded housing improvements at Apsara and pays the salary for one of the teachers. Molly met the girl on one of her previous visits and asked me to do her a favor–take a Lucky burger and a drink for each AIDS-infected kid (48) when I deliver the toys she sent.
I waited for Allison to arrive in Phnom Penh; she has a special interest in AIDS patients, and since it was early in her trip Dan was along. The kids were hungry for love, attention, anything. They fought over the toys, the fought over us, but there were a few who, in their eight or-so years of age, were looking out for the younger or disadvantaged. Like one girl in a worn-out pinkish dress who took my hand and made sure I gave the bedridden kids on IV drips a toy. I looked at the bladders; Ciproflaxin and saline.
Later that same girl came to play with me and another with a neurological disorder contorting her limbs; her knees were calloused from dragging herself around. She would scrunch up her face, pull her working arm back, and throw a hackey sack with all her might. It would drop to the ground 12 inches from her and she would laugh in a gasping fashion.
This went on for several minutes, the disabled girl, the pink-dress girl, and I playing as we fended off the desperate others. Allison and Dan had their hands full as well. In a somewhat scarring memory, Allison and I had watched this same girl pull her pants off on the floor then, half naked, drag herself over the sill into the tiled bathroom to pee in one of the unclean squat toilets. That this debilitated girl had sought me out, on hands and knees, to play catch was one of those moments you can’t turn away from. You just sit down and laugh with her. You give.
Molly’s girl, the one who was at Apsara, desperately wants to go back. The head nun doesn’t think it’s appropriate yet, as far as her health, nor does Apsara it seems. And so Molly’s girl goes to school, sleeps in a dormitory with other attention-starved children, looks forward to Sundays when Apsara teachers come out to work with the children, and watches as her fellow residents succumb to AIDS. They are all on ARV. Curiously, there is a TB ward two buildings away. The nuns seem to make do; they pray for God to provide, pray for donors, and when that fails, they go begging.
Apsara offers public performances on Saturday evenings. I had tried to make it two weekends in a row, but last Saturday I knew I could go. I just had to stop by a wedding first. I’m glad I made it to Apsara because they were considering canceling the performance, thinking that not enough foreigners might show, but Kalyan–who we met when we visited Molly’s girl–said I was showing up. The resident kids watched, as did some of the parents, but the hour-long performance was for me.
I swatted mosquitoes born from the fetid waters Apsara is built over, and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. For you climbers out there–these girls can bend their fingers backwards, creating a perfect “C.” Some can do it without using their other hand. That’s tendon flexibility.
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