Monday, February 02, 2009

Battambang bang bang

Well, it’s Monday at 8:30 in the morning. The rest of the team is already on the bus returning to Phnom Penh, but I have some work left to do in Battambang. I haven’t yet photographed all the facilities, and I haven’t given quite enough hugs.

Whooboy. Yesterday was a full day.

I woke up at 4:30am to caterwauling monks from the local Wat. Every 7 days, starting on the first of the month, they engage in some sort of monk-y business that includes a high volume recital of some of the world’s worst music. Imagine Paula Abdul singing in Khmer, backed by an orchestra filled with first-year clarinetists. Play it backwards, turn the volume up past ’11,’ shift the pitch up half an octave, and add a chorus of angry, cymbal-banging bonobos in estrus. Play this ‘music’ about 40 yards from your hotel room window from 4:30am to 8:30am. This, my friend, has to be some violation of the Geneva Convention, right? I’m as liberal as the next guy, but I would consider advocating the admission of these monks to Guantanamo. Prisoners? Fine. Interrogators, even better. Trust me, they won’t need to break out the water boards.

Unable to drown out track 9 from the “Welcome to Hell” orientation CD, I showered, got dressed and hit the town at about 5:40. It was still dark, but I decided to see what I could capture on my camera. I did a little “Waking up in Battambang” series, and I actually think that some of the pics are pretty cool.

I returned to the Te.O Hotel at about 7am, and met the rest of the team for breakfast, poached eggs and French toast, for those keeping track.

At about 8am we arrived for church at our main campus, which is currently home to the Battambang 1 orphan home. BB3 and BB4’s buildings are under construction on that property, and there’s room for another one at some time in the future. (We’re also hoping to raise about $14k to build an outdoor shelter large enough to accommodate all of the kids, all of the staff, neighbor, visitors and passers-through – a church building that could serve 300 people in one service.)

Stepping into the main hall of BB1, our sanctuary for the morning, I was mobbed by about 30 kids, some of whom I recognized, some entirely new to me. “Hello, John! Hello, daddy John! How are you daddy? I miss you! Come sit with me! I miss you! I love you daddy!” The service itself was wonderful. Each of the five orphan homes performed songs and dances.

As the kids from Battambang 1 danced to “That My Soul Knows Very Well,” ripples of emotions began to form in my feet and wash up through my body. At the line “When mountains fall, I’ll stand by the power of your hand, and in your heart of heart I’ll dwell, that my soul knows very well,” I almost broke loose into an audible sob; I just barely kept my composure.

It won’t make sense to all of you, but a few years ago, many of those kids were taken from us in a scandalous abuse of power. We fought for them, our staff and directors risking imprisonment – and maybe worse – because of the promise we had made to those children when we first admitted them into our home: “You will always be safe, well fed and loved.” To see Visal, Uddom, Chanthea, Lihour, Pisey, Chhem, Samneang, Dina, Soktheuon and the rest of the kids from that group we rescued was too much. Too much joy, too much sorrow. It’s almost too much to write about…

After church, we piled into cars, vans and rented flatbed trucks and headed about 40 miles out of town to the baptism site. I had to choose between an air-conditioned van filled with our team members and some staff and the bed of a truck lined with 2x4s and stuffed-to-overflowing with sweating, squirming kids. I chose the kids. I began to regret my decision only when we left the paved road. Yep, the last 30 or so miles were over dirt roads that had apparently been used at some time for bombing practice. And since it’s the dry season, we traveled – like some cut-rate analogue of the children of Israel’s journey out of Egypt – in a cloud of dust by day.

As you can imagine, I arrived in a state that would not reach “sheveled” without a significant personal hygiene intervention. Remote, yet beautiful, we reached our site and disembarked. There were a series of hammock-strung cabanas along a brackish lake, whose far shore abutted a small range of lush, green mountains. My backbreaking transit aside, it was a very cool location.

Dave, Savorn and I waded into the water as the children sang the Khmer version of “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” One by one the children stepped into the water, each one joined by their orphan home father, who performed their baptism. After being dipped, each child received hands-on prayer from Dave and I. The process went pretty quickly, and before long, all 28 baptisms had been performed. We sang a couple of songs as we returned to the cabanas to eat lunch.

After lunch, the kids changed into their swimming clothes and walked down to a manmade creek that drains water off the lake. There was a fair amount of debris – mostly paper and plastic – but the water seemed pretty clean. I did not intend to get in, but the kids convinced me to do so.

After swimming, I fell asleep in one of the hammocks. When it was time to head for the seat I’d reserved for myself in the van, the kids from Battambang 1 pleaded with me to ride with them. Sigh. Ooookay. The trip back was, for some reason, even worse than the trip there. I am so not built for that kind of travel. I weigh 3 times as much as those kids, and I’m certainly not as flexible or resilient as I used to be. But I made it.

After dinner, I treated myself to a therapeutic back massage at “Seeing Hands Massage by Blind,” and I also underwent a rather uncomfortable, but effective fire cupping session. This morning, I feel – and look -- like I was beaten by a gang of cymbal-weilding buddhist bonobos. Good thing I’m staying an extra day. I can afford to sleep in. I may actually get out of bed in a few minutes and get this, along with about 100 pictures I’ve taken since arriving in Battambang, up on the internet.

Well, wouldn’t you know it. The internet is broken in Battambang. Should be up by the afternoon. No big deal. I’ve got a lot to do today – I have some research projects for our microenterprise work and I’ve got some orphanages to visit. Peace.


Anonymous said...

Keep posting, it really helps us "picture" the ministry.

God bless you today!

Anonymous said...

I can see it, hear it, smell it! I have been there, and it takes me back. What a cool thing to have the baptisms! Stay healthy, and we love reading.

Joyce Atkins

Amanda said...

Just saying hi.

We miss you.

Stay healthy and safe.

Love, Andersons

Anonymous said...

I agree that when you do post it does helps one get more of a picture of what is going on. I hope that you continue to stay healthy and God will continue to give you some sleep and continuing wisdom when it comes to the orphanages and other discussions that you need tot or have done.

Anonymous said...

i keep forgetting to sign it with my name my comment and it is liz

Anonymous said...

So glad you're there...wish I was too...keep the posts coming.


Anonymous said...

I always love to read your writing - I feel like I'm there with you. And I'm such a mush that I tear up every time you write about the kids. Love you and love them from afar - even though I've never met them. One of these days..... Julie

Anonymous said...

So Awesome!
Thanks for posting.

Karl said...

A practical question... what is fire cupping?

John McCollum said...

fire cupping:

Like in this picture (and this is actually where I had it done...)


Anonymous said...

Fire cupping, interesting, so why did you have it done and what did it do for you?