Travel is a Life Changing Experience
Phnom Penh Street Kids.
The boat was packed. Of the 125 passengers jammed into the main cabin and perched atop the roof in the baking sun, about 95 percent were foreigners, mostly Europeans with a smattering of Aussies and a few Canadians for ballast. Most have been to tour Angkor Wat, the world famous jungle temple complex in northern Cambodia, and taking the fast ferry back to the capital of Phnom Penh was an adventure. Nobody knew that it would be a life-changing experience.
It was about 180 miles across the vast waters of the Tonle Sap, one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. We were about 30 minutes out and going like hell and the sight of land had completely disappeared when water mysteriously started to emerge at the back of the boat. Nobody could figure out where it was coming from, because all the windows were rusted shut and the only exit doors were way up front. People picked their bags up from the floor, and soon there was murmuring, and as the water level grew somebody shouted in panic.
Within minutes the water was a foot deep and a few passengers went up front to have a word with the captain. The fast ferry was forced to stop and the captain was urged (in lieu of being thrown) to jump overboard and find the leak. He emerged to report that he had found a hole the size of a soccer ball in the hull. The crew put on life jackets—the only useable ones on board—crawled to the bow of the boat and prepared to jump overboard. We passengers preceded to bail like hell using an old paint can, forming a bucket brigade for the entire four hours it took to cross the vast body of water. We plugged the hole using t-shirts, a rubber sandal, and wishful thinking. It was touch and go whether we would arrive alive or sink to the bottom of the lake, a hellish journey I wish to never relive.
In Phnom Penh several “survivors” got together for a celebration. The feeling of elation was palpable; we were literally giddy with relief. The next day, still vibrating, I knocked on the door of ChildSafe headquarters, not far from the old riverside promenade that gives this gracious city its fading French colonial charm. I was still floating high from the day before, but not so effervescent as to have forgotten the main reason for my trip to Phnom Penh. ChildSafe and sister organization Street Kids International have offices in Cambodia, and I wanted to see how I could help.
Cambodia is just emerging from a hellish journey of its own. After the genocidal Pol Pot regime that saw the madmen of the Khmer Rouge murder literally millions of their own people, the subsequent invasion of the Vietnamese army, and more conflict followed by years of abject poverty, Cambodia is just beginning to get on its feet. Its utter poverty has led to a disgusting scenario where sexual predators are drifting to Cambodia to prey on young, poor and defenseless children. You see middle-aged men from the western world sitting in the bars of the riverside promenade, sipping their beers and licking their lips, and wonder which ones are there for sex vacations.
ChildSafe does not track and persecute these disgusting pederasts. There are other agencies to do that job. Instead, their workers are out on patrol night and day, riding their motorbikes around the tourist areas where street children sell books and magazines. Its not just sex predators who abuse the children of poor countries like Cambodia; there are other kids, bigger and older—bullies, really—who work for gangs and beat up younger kids. Then there are shopkeepers and the police to watch out for too. Cheap drugs are also an extreme hazard to those kids who earn cash from tourists.
ChildSafe offers safe housing, guidance, health care, schooling and mentoring to the street kids of Phnom Penh, a safe refuge from the madness. Slowly but surely they are gaining the approval of the police, business community, hotels, tuk tuk drivers, and the street kids themselves. Riding with the ChildSafe motorbike patrols, interviewing their leaders, filming their activities, touring the school and meeting the street kids, I gained an assurance that the children of Cambodia have a good friend indeed in this wonderful organization.
Whenever and wherever I go on a journey, I do some creative "googling" first to get a sense of place, a feel for the community that I am about to visit, and some project that I can assist. It doesn’t take much time or effort; it’s amazing what you can find online these days. On this particular day, after coming so close to dying, everything in Phnom Penh seemed so vibrant, alive, fresh and dazzling. I fell in love with the children of the street, I handed out small toys and pencils, and the children drew pictures of what they would like to see in their futures—houses, motos (motorbikes), flowers, and food.
Next I have to edit my ChildSafe footage, post it on my website, show the clips to local schools and organizations that raise money for children, and start to raise some money for ChildSafe. I’ll go to Phnom Penh next year and donate whatever funds I raise, which will provide me with yet another reason to go back. As a journalist, wherever I go on my travels, I like to have some purpose. It gives meaning to my life and giving to others makes me happy. Next time, however, I think I’ll give the fast ferries a pass; I don’t want to push my luck. Now, did I tell you about the bus I took from Phnom Penh to Kampot on the coast? The driver was completely crazy, and...