Through many dangers, toils and snares
Okay. That title is actually a pretty egregious exaggeration. Perhaps it should read “Through many airports, subways and transit delays.”
At any rate, after a ridiculously long day of travel, Pak and I arrived only semi-conscious in Phnom Penh yesterday at 2 in the morning. This was the only time I’ve ever been glad to have not been greeted by a large group of staff and kids at Pochentong International Airport. Mercifully, Savorn and Sony met us there alone to take us to our guesthouse.
Pak and I finally got to bed at around 3:00 a.m. and tried to salvage something of a night’s sleep. We got up around 10:00 and headed out to our favorite breakfast place, a little phở joint across the street from a Pakistani-Cambodian mosque a hundred meters or so off of Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, named for the gigantic Chinese embassy that takes up an entire city block in the center of Phnom Penh. The street our restaurant sits on is now paved, reducing slightly the amount of dust in one’s soup.
Perhaps it is something in the air. Or more likely, it’s the ancient family recipe, the years of experience and the ingredients that can only be found in Southeast Asia. But whenever we’re not in Phnom Penh, we can’t stop thinking about this soup. The beefy broth, the tender rice noodles, the fresh herbs that perfume the air as they hit the hot, oily surface of the phở – of course we don’t come here for the food, but it’d be something bordering criminal if we didn’t enjoy it while we were here! (And don’t get me started about the café sua da, the Vietnamese iced coffee that absolutely must accompany the meal…)
After enjoying our breakfast with a level of gusto that either a) amused; b) gratified; or c) frightened the proprietors, we ran a few errands, lost track of time and forgot entirely to eat lunch. At about 1:30, we headed out of town to Prek Eng, where all five of our Phnom Penh-area children’s home lie scattered about in rented houses.
Prek Eng, like most of Phnom Penh, has grown considerably in the last seven years. When we opened our first home there, the road was unpaved, and the five mile journey from the city was a bone-rattling trek that could take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the number of cattle, petrol trucks, motorbikes, pushcarts and cyclos battling for turf and marginal advancement along a narrow stretch of dirt and gravel that could have only with a degree of optimism been described as having two lanes.
Today, the road has been paved, widened and in all ways greatly improved. A new and much wider set of bridges have been built over the Mekong; new hotels, casinos, restaurants and nightcubs line the road, serving countless new residents living in the thousands of condos and apartments that have infested like concrete kudzu the rice fields that once opened up to a vast, green horizon. The sky itself seems much smaller in Prek Eng these days.
All of this development is grand in its own way. But it’s also problematic for us. Prek Eng is an ideal location for our homes, providing our kids access to universities, to utilities, to activities. But it’s getting harder and harder to find affordable places to rent, and no landlord is willing to give us more than a year on a contract, just in case there’s a profit to be taken with another lessor in a few months’ time. Some of our homes have already moved 4 or 5 times over the past few years — you can imagine the inconvenience and expense. Plus, if there’s anything a kid who was once an orphan needs, it’s a sense of stability. And the constant shuffling of homes has left us with an inequality across our facilities that is far less than ideal – some of our homes are spacious and in great condition, others less so. But we’re not eager to invest heavily in a property that we may lose in four months. So we make do.
Clearly, it’s time to build and buy. More on that later…
Anyway, Pak and I drove out to the Asia’s Hope Christian School and visited with the kids, interrupting their studies for a few hugs. It was clear that most of the kids – and some of the staff – did not recognize me in a beard. Once they heard my voice, they laughed and pointed and shouted my name. (It would be very easy for a white dude to go incognito around here. Change your hair, put on a pair of sunglasses, adjust your accent and you could live hidden in plain sight for years).
After hanging out at the school for a while, we called Narun, the director of Prek Eng 2, and he told us that the senior staff were enjoying some ping pong at Prek Eng 1. I hopped in my car, drove to Prek Eng 1 and then remembered… the home had moved since my last visit, victim of another non-renewable lease. I drove back to the school, and met Sopang, director of Prek Eng 3, whom we followed back to the new (and, in this case, nicer) Prek Eng 1.
For the next couple of hours, Pak and I played ping pong with the staff, causing each of our extremely patient doubles’ partners no end of bad luck. It was very bad ping pong, but it was a very nice time. How wonderful to be able to fellowship as friends and as family with these men and women who dedicate their lives to the difficult work of raising so many children so very well.
After a couple of hours, the kids from Prek Eng 1 came home from school, and the staff returned to their homes to greet their own kids and get dinner started. It’s amazing how much the kids have grown in the past few months. I did a couple of doubletakes as the adolescent boys, squeaky-voiced and scrawny on my last visit, now pumped my hands muscularly and greeted me with a deep, teenagery, “Hello, Daddy!” And so many of the girls have become beautiful young women. Before long, they’ll be all grown up and off to college. (Pak has also changed a lot since his last visit. He now towers over most of our staff, and is quite a handsome young man. I sense that this has not gone unnoticed by some of the girls at Asia’s Hope, but I’m choosing to pretend it’s just my imagination).
Around 5:00, we headed to Prek Eng 2, where we were treated to an hour or so of games and a delicious dinner of fish, beef, rice and French fries. By 7:00, we were completely exhausted, and I knew we’d have to head home. Despite the road improvements, driving at night in Cambodia can be hazardous, especially for exhausted foreigners.
After a good night’s sleep, we’re ready to do it all over again. Some delicious phở, a few hours of errands and then off to see the kids. Asia’s Hope project manager Seth Earnest is arriving late tonight, as are my good friend and ministry colleague Jared Boyd and his daughter Rayli. This is Jared and Rayli’s first trip, and I couldn’t be more excited to show them around. Jared’s family has supported Asia’s Hope financially, strategically and morally for many, many years. I’m thrilled that they now get to experience it first hand. I’m certain they will have an amazing time, and I look forward to creating lifelong memories with them.
After a few days of relative rest with Jared and Rayli, the trip will begin to pick up steam as other teams which will need my attention arrive over the next few weeks. I can’t wait. I’m so encouraged about what God is doing with Asia’s Hope, and I am eager to share it with you as time and internet access allows.
Thank you for your prayers, your encouragement and your support!
P.S. Apologies for the marginal quality of the photos -- by the time I got around to editing them last night, I was so tired I could literally not keep my eyes open for more than a few minutes at a time. Hope to do better next time.