Sunday was, as I had expected, bursting at the seams with challenges and celebrations. And despite ending the day with a case of food poisoning (or flu? My intestines don’t know or care about the difference), the blessings far outweighed the pain.
Once again, God had mercy on me and on the staff and kids of Asia’s Hope; I wasn’t prepared for my sermon, but God gave me words that seemed to hit the mark. After church I presided over a sensitive meeting that could have gone very badly, but God gave all of the participants grace and peace.
After my meeting, we headed back from Prek Eng into Phnom Penh to meet Savorn and his family — Sony, Billy, Malvin (and Malvin’s girlfriend) — for Korean barbecue at the Aeon Mall, a shopping center so vast and upscale I still struggle with believing it exists in Phnom Penh. Savorn told us that a group of young adults who had grown up at our Prek Eng 1 home and had since finished university and entered the workforce wanted to treat us to dinner. The place they chose was also at the Aeon Mall, so Dylan and I decided to park ourselves at a coffee shop and work on photos and blog posts rather than head back to hotel for a rest.
In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. By the end of the evening, I was a mess. Exhaustion, headache, repeated visits to the loo... you get the idea. I barely slept on Sunday night; between the fever and the nausea, I think I got three hours of sleep.
But I’m so glad I didn’t miss the dinner with the PE1 graduates. Maybe it was the food poisoning kicking in; maybe it was the fact that I had eaten so much for lunch. Either way, I only picked at the food and spent most of the time just chatting with these young adults about where they had been, where they were now and where they saw themselves going. After dinner, the chats turned to intense, tear-filled interactions that left me feeling like the most blessed guy in the world, despite being completely unworthy of all the good things Asia’s Hope has brought to me over the last 16 years.
Bunnaroth, is now an official in the Ministry of the Interior. This young man just exudes confidence and competence. When I had introduced him to Dylan before dinner, I said, “Bunnaroth is going to be governor of a Cambodian province in ten years.” Without boasting, without a hint of irony, he said, “Actually, seven I think.”
After dinner, he sat down in the chair next to me, put his arm around me, and leaned his head up against mine and expressed words of thanks so deeply personal I don’t think I could ever feel comfortable sharing them in a blog post. One by one, the kids came and and told me — quietly, privately, whispering in my ears — how Asia’s Hope had changed their lives, how they came from nothing, had no hope and no future. They expressed their deep appreciation for their Asia’s Hope homes and parents, and then they told me how they remembered my first visits, our first interactions — the games we played, their reactions to this crazy (and once young) American guy who showed up in their lives 15 years ago — and stayed.
These conversations were so precious, so intimate, I wouldn’t dare share them without permission, and even then only on a face-to-face basis.
On Monday morning, I had planned to take Dylan to visit a local market, lunch in the city and then to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Still feeling a bit weak, I skipped breakfast and stayed in bed; Dylan grabbed a bite in our hotel. At about 11am, I decided I felt well enough to venture out and we hailed a tuk tuk and began our shopping excursion at the so-called Russian Market. Savorn called and said, “If you are free to visit some of the college students, meet them at Royal University of Phnom Penh in one hour; they have time to spend with you.”
Well, if we were to make that timeframe, we would have to leave the market within 15 minutes. Dylan was wearing shorts, which would not be culturally appropriate for a visit to a university, so we cut short our souvenir buying and set out to find a pair of suitable trousers. Dylan found a pair of Kermit-green pants in something close to his size, tried them on sans-dressing room and negotiated a non-extortive price. Slacks on the legs, shorts in the bag, we found ourselves another taxi and got to the university with no time to spare.
We were greeted by five smiling faces — all kids who had grown up at Asia’s Hope and are thriving in their studies. Architecture, International Relations and Business majors, these kids have not only overcome the odds, they’ve pinned those odds to the mat, hogtied them and posted them “return to sender.” For the next three or four hours, we walked around the campus with these guys, sipped smoothies and talked about the dreams they hold for their own lives and for their country. We laughed a lot and we took a bunch of pictures of campus buildings designed by world-famous Cambodian modernist architect Vann Molyvan, the progenitor of the brutalist New Khmer Architecture style.
Around 4pm we said goodbye to the students, some of whom had classes that evening. We rode down to the riverfront, and spent most of the evening editing photos over drinks and dinner. We walked around and took some photos of the city after sundown and headed back to our hotel exhausted.
I don’t need to get into the details, but this morning was no fun at all for me. We met our home parents for breakfast at a local restaurant, and about halfway through, I had to run to the boys’ room. I barely made it to the toilet before vomiting. I spent the rest of the morning at a local clinic and then in bed at the hotel. Ravy, the dad at our Prek Eng 4 home, took Dylan to the genocide museum and then out to lunch. By mid-afternoon, I felt strong enough to make the 45 minute drive to Prek Eng. I was still a bit sick, but it would have taken something worse than a little food poisoning to keep me from spending one last evening with our staff and kids before heading out to Battambang.
Neither Dylan nor I felt hungry enough for dinner, so we’ve just arrived at our hotel and have settled for a couple handfuls of pistachios.
Despite feeling like death-warmed-over, I will go to bed tonight satisfied, knowing that I am extraordinarily blessed, and incomprehensibly favored. If I can stay awake, I’ll finish this post with some pictures that loosely correspond to the text. Tomorrow we drive across the country to see our other kids and staff. May God keep my insides on the inside and the road free from water buffalo. Catch you on the other side of dawn.
Dinner with some of the Prek Eng 1 home university graduates.
Somany’s baby, one of a growing number of Asia’s Hope grandchildren.
Some of our bright young students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
A few of the kids in front of the I Heart RUPP (Royal University of Phnom Penh) sign.
Beautiful albeit stark buildings designed by Vann Molyvan.
Feeding pigeons and koi at RUPP. (Photo credit: Dylan Menges)
Our students proudly showing us their classrooms and study haunts.
Dusk at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
Nighttime in Phnom Penh.
Students at the Asia’s Hope Primary School on our Prek Eng campus.
32 new bikes for our six Prek Eng homes!
Dylan gives one of the new bikes a whirl.
It was hard saying goodbye to the kids in Prek Eng, but it’s time to go to Battambang.