ABy Eric Drury
The sun was getting ever higher overhead and didn’t mix well with the layers of soiled garbage underfoot, the smell of fresh waste of all types and the heavy exhaust from the frequently used, yet hardly maintained, trains.
There are a couple of travel bonuses experienced during the rainy season in Phnom Penh: the blindingly atrocious smell of ammonia that’s released when opening a ripe durian and the near guarantee of soggy afternoon tuk-tuk rides. The one releases an unimaginably vile smell; the other is durian. Regrettably the Capital of Cambodia is more known for its perverse sensual services and history of human atrocities than the beautiful sparkling jewel that is the Khmer people and culture.
While on the trip with Saving Moses we had a few days where, along with the NightCare workers, we would walk through the different neighborhoods around the center and hand out cards. They were written in Khmer (the local language) and explained what the NightCare centers were. With the help of a translator, we greeted and talked to families as we moved through the neighborhoods. There were some introductions, but for the most part we bumped into a lot of friends of NightCare. On one of these trips, we met a blind older man, which in Cambodia is quite a rarity due to the horrors of a genocide that took place in the 1970’s. During that time, this man had his eyes gouged out.
Now, he supports his family by going to a local park and playing music for whatever money a passersby can spare. He greeted us with an impossibly warm and familiar smile as he explained his situation. The small pieces of wood and corrugated metal that made up his tiny home spoke volumes. The weight of the brutality that this man endured left a stunned silence. Sadness danced in all our eyes as blank wide-eyed glances were exchanged.
As the manager of the NightCare center and our translator said our goodbyes to this beautiful man and his family, the rest of the group met up on a dry patch outside, in-between the train tracks, and confronted our unavoidable eruption of emotions.
Once we composed ourselves, we continued passing out cards and meeting new families until the heat of the sun and the emptiness of our bellies called us to lunch. The image of that man and the senseless savagery he endured refused to leave me. I invited it to sit with and haunt me all afternoon and into the early evening.
Thankfully we were due back at the NightCare center soon. The toddlers came in whatever way their parents could manage– most were piled onto a scooter with several of their siblings, or simply walked through the brown, rushing, knee-to-waist high water. They knew exactly what to do as they entered, and those that casually forgot, were sweetly yet swiftly reminded by the nannies; sign in, clean up, eat and then play.
My job was to help with the feeding and play. The babies would fly into the kitchen after getting scrubbed up and dressed in superhero pajamas and receive a carefully prepared warm bowl of food. Several of them would eat so fast it would give away the fact it was obviously their first meal that day. After getting home cooked food, they would dash off into the front room and head for all the toys!
After I got a reluctant baby to finish his food, I walked into the main room which was transformed into heaven on earth: babies playing with building blocks, bouncy balls and plastic trucks, and squealing with pure joy. That’s where one of the nannies unknowingly broke this bond of sadness I was feeling. Smiling, she pointed over at two beaming and beautiful babies playing with a toy train and said: “His babies.” She then used her hands to cover her eyes and then again pointed at the children. Seeing we needed help, our translator came over and told me that those two babies, clean and with full bellies, were the grandbabies of the blind man we met earlier.
For the first time I saw what the blind man and the nannies had seen all along: we aren’t here just to mourn the loss of that wonderful man’s sight. Getting lost in sadness on this man’s behalf will not bring his eyes back. We’re here to help his grandbabies see a brighter future. To help their eyes see a better world than the one that took their grandfather’s.