Road trips and reunions

Curtis West and I got up early yesterday morning and checked out of our room at the Queenwood Hotel. Curtis took his breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and I stepped next-door to the Feel Good coffee shop and ordered a flat white. My drink had just arrived when a white Asia's Hope van pulled up to the curb; out spilled Ravy, Savong, Narun, Samnang, Sopheng and Anh, all smiles and laughter. 

I love these guys, and it's clear that they love each other — and me.

I finished my coffee, paid the check, and we walked a block down the street to a bustling breakfast joint whose charm will, if discovered by the hordes of backpackers and sex tourists, be lost forever. As it stands, however, I'm the only white guy I've ever seen there, and I get confused glances and curious stares when I walk in.

We ordered a variety of Cambodian dishes — I had grilled pork over rice and a steamed Chinese-style bun — and each of us ate our fill. The final bill for all seven of us was less than $20; no one can accuse me of overspending my meal budget on this trip. Not yet, at least.

After breakfast, all of us hit the road and headed out toward Battambang. To everyone's relief, I declined driving duties to Narun, and settled for the privilege of picking the soundtrack for the first portion of the road trip. Before long, the conversation turned to our childhood in the 1970s and 80s.

While I was riding my bike to Lawson's to buy candy, my friends were marching barefoot and beleaguered through jungles toward labor camps. While I was competing with my classmates to see who could eat more Jello Pudding Pops in one sitting (my record was 17), my friends were literally starving, subsisting on a daily diet of two tablespoons of porridge, given twice a day. I pouted and slammed doors because my dad made me rake the lawn while my friends cried themselves to sleep at night, keening hopelessly for the parents they had lost to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.

So, yeah. You can see why I let those guys lead story time.

About an hour outside of Phnom Penh, we found the little Cham village where Curtis will be teaching for the next few months and after some initial navigational difficulties, we dropped him off near enough to his actual destination that he was able to get himself the rest of the way there.

The rest of the ride was enjoyable but uneventful, and we arrived in Battambang mid-afternoon. Most of the dads from our Battambang homes were there to greet us at the hotel — what a blessing to serve with those men and their families. After a few minutes of hugs and greetings, they left me to freshen up, and to greet the folks from Crossroads Church (Mansfield, OH) who are in Cambodia to visit the homes they sponsor and to the school dedication on the 31st.

After an hour of rest, I headed out to our Battambang campus, which I haven't visited since before construction began on the school and athletic fields. 

My goodness.

Words can't really express how wonderful this place is. And, thanks to the unfortunate positioning of the sun directly behind the new building, neither can my pictures. But there will be lots of time for photography over the next few days, and I'm sure that I'll find some way of approximating the sensation of walking hand in hand with some of the world's sweetest kids across our sprawling campus toward our beautiful new school building. Just a few years ago, this was all farmland, home to more cows than kids. Today, it is positively teeming with life, filled to the brim with the smells of dinner and the sounds of children laughing, singing and playing.

Gone are the days when I can know every child's name. Heck, I'm about 50/50 in my guesses of which kids belong with which families. And while that represents something of a minor personal loss — I loved being able to connect with every single child on an individual basis — I watch the team from Crossroads interact with the homes they sponsor, and it's clear our these kids don't lack attention from their overseas aunts and uncles. 

So after a few hours of wandering from home to home (my pedometer says I walked 4.2 miles yesterday afternoon), I anchored myself in the courtyard between homes 4 and 5 and hosted a dozen or so rounds of "Simon Says" and "Guess The Leader." I then shared a delicious homemade meal with my staff under a thatched bamboo cabana and then headed back to my hotel, exhausted.

This morning I'm a bit under the weather, so I'm resting, writing and running errands. With any luck I'll get lunch and a nap and have enough energy for an afternoon with the kids and two days of celebration to follow.

My photography has slowed down as I've struggled to balance shooting pictures of kids with real, meaningful interactions. But here are a few. Enjoy. And thank you for your prayers, your love and your support.

John McCollumComment