After another long ride down dusty roads and over the Old Bridge, we pulled into the gates of ASPECA, the state-run Kampot Province orphanage. Tika is intrigued that all the schools in Cambodia look the same: they are yellow stucco buildings with gray-blue shuttered windows with outdoor hallways and a playground in the middle. She asks every time we pass one whether it is the Tuol Sleng Prison, because that prison was actually created out of a school, emptied out, surrounded in razor wire, and converted into a torture center. Oddly enough, the real Tuol Sleng also has flowering frangiapani, coconut trees and a basketball backstop in its center. But now we were pulling into a playground alive with Saturday afternoon games. Bigger kids were playing volleyball, smaller ones were chasing each other across the yard, girls in navy skirts with long, smooth pony-tails were grouped together chattering, and a few wiry boys caked in dust were weaving in among the other kids on bicycles.
Suddenly I felt intimidated. The tuk-tuk driver stopped and sat under a tree for a smoke. Here I was in the middle of the playground, having no particular plan for what to do. My attempts to phone the director before coming were unsuccessful; whoever had answered spoke only Khmer. Ernest and Yoshi made no offer to help, but ran across the yard to hide from the boys who were now chasing them. Tika and Puck were picking flowers off the trees. I had to think up a plan quickly. I spotted an older woman cradling a sleeping baby, and approached her to introduce myself. She smiled and looked down modestly, indicating she couldn’t speak English, then pointed to another building. I approached a room lined with beds and a young boy who seemed to be sick, sitting up on one of them. An older boy was helping him and then turned when he saw me.
He introduced himself to me, explaining that the director was away today and he was the oldest child here and could speak English and French. His eyes were slightly bulging, a little bit cloudy and crossed, but he seemed to see me fine, and offered to take me around. I said I was visiting Kampot with my kids and that we’d like to take a look around and make a donation if that was OK. He said that’s fine, and he takes tourists around here often. Spotting me with the new person, Tika and Puck ran up to follow along.
We curiously poked our heads into group sleeping rooms, a dark sooty dining room, and the outdoor kitchen. To Tika's delight, we were introduced to the orphanage pig, who sleeps in a muddy corner next to the kitchen. The little ones ran off again. The deputy-in-charge explained to me that the orphanage holds about fifty children from the province whose parents have died or else turned them over for lack of money for food. The orphans share their school with other town children, who come on weekdays for lessons in English and French. He had grown up here, and was now helping the director, along with two ladies who speak only Khmer.
As we came back to sit down next to the ladies with the babies, I thanked him for the walk-through and offered him our donation. Since he seemed to be running the place solo, I sensed he needed to get back to work. This time, rather than pulling timid kids off my leg, I had to go find the four of them and tell them it was time to go.
Riding back to our guest house, we passed two saffron-robed monks on a sleepy street. I remembered reading earlier in the week that the Dalai Lama has announced he wants to retire. What a life—to be meditative and dispense spiritual guidance all the time! But an interesting bit of his guidance had stuck in my head all week—find within yourself sincerity of intention. What does that mean? Why am I doing what I’m doing anyway? Why do I keep poking around orphanages? What am I bringing to these village kids, whom I under-pay and disappoint in the end, anyway? Am I another in the ridiculous menagerie of tourists? What messages am I trying to convey to my own kids out of all of this?
Being a mom doesn’t leave much time for contemplation—I’m not good monk-material—and we were hungry anyway. We headed over to the riverfront to watch the fisherman paddling at sunset and find dinner in a local bar. There, overlooking the river and the shantytown on the other side, we ate nachos and played pool. Puck even got a few balls in the pocket, with some assistance. As streetlights turned on and the music got louder, Ernest and Yoshi had to give up their cues to a few Kampot locals. I sat back with a margarita and watched these guys take long puffs of their cigarettes, looking tough, and belting out along with Janice Joplin, in Khmer accent, protest songs from the decade before they were born.
That night we slept, like the orphans across the river, under bug nets on bed mats, tangled up with each other and the rattle-rattle of our fan.