“I would have been a Snail Seller”

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“I would have been a Snail Seller” he said in the most straightforward way. I was not sure I understood him and asked him to repeat.
He repeated, “Snail Seller”. And then went on to give me a detailed explanation. “It’s like on the street. The carts. The snails you know – to eat.”

Ah! The image came flooding in and I knew exactly what he meant.

All sorts of food carts, fruit carts, fish carts and yes snail carts roam the streets of Phnom Penh looking for hungry customers that might need a snack.
The Snail Sellers literally sell snails. Either plan or seasoned in a spicy red sauce.

We westerners who panic if anything is left out of the refrigerator for more than an hour fearing it will develop some deadly bacteria or mold cannot understand the street carts. With no refrigeration, no protection other than a small fan to keep away the flies they walk the streets in 90 – 100 degree weather. The snails exposed to the heat all day still seem to be a yummy treat for the locals.

I admit I am still a bit of a squeamish expat. I am happy to by a cooked snack of noodles or freshly cut pineapple from my street vendors but have yet to try the snails or the carts of deep fried crickets and bugs.

But here was this little guy in front of me who only a few years ago was being trained at the age of 8 to take over and run his mother’s snail business.

His story of how he got to CCF is like all the kid’s stories a mix of apprehension, resistance, Scott’s determination and ultimately a child won over to dreaming of a future never imagined.

My former little “snail seller” is 12 years old. He admits to resisting the idea of CCF because he was lazy and the idea of school all day did not appeal to him. In fact, although he had a sibling in the program he failed his first interview for CCF. But after watching his sibling grow and prosper he was determined to pass the interview and now some years later he is without a doubt a star student.

Not just academically, but in every way. At 12 he has the social skills and confidence of someone much older. He is a star performer in the “Monkey Dance” troupe and a leader in everything he does.

I am currently training him and a couple of other students to be Tour Guides. So they can take VIP visitors on tours of their facilities. He is of course one of the best. Now, I am teaching some older students about Global Human Rights. And although this formerly “lazy boy” could be off doing anything he is begging to be able to learn as well.

So this little charmer has gone from snail seller to top student. He usually has a huge smile on his face but is playing it cool in this photo surrounded by the girls.
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A Simple Good By

There were 24 steps up to the house.  Going from the bright harsh sunlight to the dark shade of the room it was hard to see for a moment and then quietly I saw the shape on the floor. There she was lying on a brightly colored sleeping mat surrounded by friends and family but forever alone.

 

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She lay there in what appeared to be a quiet slumber like a fairy princess under a spell.  Here face expressionless, her eyes gently closed, her long dark hair pulled back to reveal her lovely young face.

She was in a simple T-shirt, her wrists wrapped with the red yarn that the monks gently tie on visitors to Angkor Wat.   Her hands across her chest and her fingers, still painted with the sparkly blue nail polish from the New Year holiday, were carefully intertwined.

A bright orange blanked covered her legs and feet.

She was beautiful and she was dead.  16 years old, a gentle hardworking student, one of three sisters to a single mother who lived a poor and quiet life in a provincial village and made sure that her daughters went to school.  Not just any school, but to Cambodian Children’s Fund.

So she was family, our family and with her untimely passing students rallied, facility managers changed schedules, donations were taken up and buses filled with dear friends, bags of rice, gallons of water and sad hearts to make the 5 hour trip to say farewell.

Her lovely mother grieved and cried like only a mother could do.  The tragedy of a young life lost, a daughter gone could not be undone. 

Death is more personal here in Cambodia no strangers taking the body away, no funeral parlor, no embalming, no big church. 

Just the young girl laid out in the living room of her family home.  The monks chanting in the background and a small altar at her feet where friends could place a prayer and a burning piece of incense. 

Occasionally her sister would brush the flies away and carefully wipe her face as if she was still sweating in the heat of the afternoon.  The family cat filled with curiosity was kept in another room, his painful meow adding to the muffled sobs and tears of loss.   Little ones – from the neighborhood wandering in and out.

The kindness of Cambodians never ceases to surprise me in a gentle way.  And at one point the mother who seemed inconsolable remembers she has guests and rushes to bring us all water and make sure we are taken care of.

Downstairs a shade tarp is strung across the yard, borrowed plastic tables arranged and the simplest of rice soups served to this extended family and friends.  And in the midst a humble wooden casket painted yellow and waiting for tomorrow.

And the students, they are clear that they have lost a sister.  They are clear that we are family.  Staff and senior students had worked the last two weeks to make sure she got to the best hospital, got the best care and was never alone.  Despite all that medical science could do she passed away and again staff and students worked through the night to make sure her body was brought home to her mother by morning. And within hours over 70 adopted sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles on their way to be with their family. SMTruck

More than 30 students stayed the night with her mother and sisters sleeping in hammocks or on the ground so they would be there to help with the burial and support the mom and sisters the next day.

And in the heat of a bright Cambodian day they followed a borrowed tractor decorated with balloons, blaring the farewell chants of the monks, placed her body in the ground and said good bye.

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A Soft Place to Land

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Spent the last couple of days with the tiny tots and kids from the rescue center who have no parents or who have been abandoned by their parents or whose families are too violent or dangerous for them to visit over the New Year holiday.

As CCF does all it can to make sure kids spend holidays with their families there are only a few dozen who stay behind.

I’ve been with the little ones the last couple of days. 2 – 4 year olds a little flock of love. We have been playing, coloring, watching animated movies and taking long afternoon naps together.

It’s adorable because after lunch without prompting or encouragement they all seem to fall into a somnolent state. Like the characters in The Wizard of Oz they just drop to the ground turn over on their tummies or curl to the side or find a pillow to hug or another child to spoon with.

Or lucky me – they find me. Laying on the floor I watch a couple of hours of straight to video animated movies while one tiny little guy lays across my chest napping his quiet breath moving in and out with my own and two or three others curl up under my arms before going off to nod land

I remember the George Bernard Shaw quote “I want to be thoroughly used up” and blissfully think to myself that being used as a soft place to land for these precious little ones is an ideal new career for me.

Photo Courtesy of Scott Neesom

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