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Chay. Photo: Cheyenne Jansdatter

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…. Broad, wholesome, charitable views …cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime. ~ Mark Twain


During the next three days we developed a kind of routine. I had recorded the second part of my interview with Wayne on Sunday (Day 6), and when we finished on Monday, I felt an unexpected release. Our talks were fascinating, and I was getting what I had come for, but when I turned off the recorder, I started sharing more of myself. It was like old times, when Wayne and I knew each other 30-plus years earlier in Gallup. Only it was better, because both of us had found a measure of freedom from our rule-bound religious upbringings.

In the mornings, Cheyenne and I read and napped, the heat and humidity making us more lethargic than usual. I went for a walk one morning along the road to the school, meeting children in their white tops and navy skirts and pants. I bowed to parents delivering their children by motorbike and to families at their morning chores underneath their houses. Bowing with hands before my heart brought broad smiles and sometimes giggles in addition to reciprocating bows. Afternoons we played board games with the children. We looked through picture dictionaries with them and taught each other words in Khmer and English, words that would quickly be forgotten by all of us. Some of my greatest pleasure came from watching the children make up their own play outdoors–experiments with water and tubing and cups, pulling each other in a wooden cart with two long front handles, running about, making things in the dirt, diving naked into the new fish ponds then slipping their clothing on over shining wet bodies. It reminded me of how we played as children, building Navajo home sites in the moist arroyo bed, hiking the Three Monkeys—the huge pile of rocks beyond the arroyo. Just as the Wat Opot children did, we had played without toys or with very few of them.

I admit that I had two favorite children–Mak Phon, the boy who knew my name and loved saying it, and Chay. Chay I loved in part because he underwent an amazing transformation during our short stay. His father had died of AIDS, and his mother, on ARV drugs, walked around like a ghost–widowed, sick, knowing she had given the virus to her three-year-old son. She wouldn’t try the sewing class or silk weaving, said all the time that she was too tired. Mother and son had been at Wat Opot the least time of anyone here. They came because, after getting on the drugs, Chay’s mother wasn’t gaining weight. Early in our stay, I remarked that I had never seen Chay smile. If we talked to him, he gazed at us with dark eyes almost too large for his face, and turned his body sideways to us. Then one day at supper, Cheyenne said she’d seen him laugh that afternoon with another child. That evening, he joined the after-supper group in the gazebo. For the first time he rewarded us with a tiny smile. A little later, he giggled. By the next day he was smiling and laughing often, climbing onto my lap, running and grabbing my hand whenever he saw me on the compound. His mother watched from a distance, barely smiling when I bowed and smiled to her.

I don’t remember hearing Chay say more than a couple of words at a time, until our last morning at Wat Opot. I was sitting on the screened porch of the duplex that was our temporary home when I heard an excited string of words outside the window. It was Chay, pointing at the base of the wall and continuing to try to convey something of great importance. I got up to look, and it turned out there was a crab with a body about the size of Chay’s hand muddling about by the wall. Wayne told me that Chay’s transformation is typical of the children who come to Wat Opot frightened, lonely, angry, depressed. Before long, they have become well-adjusted, vibrant, loving and loved. Wat Opot, The Place Where People Change.

Every evening we went to the crematorium and then to the wall outside the dispensary. It seemed that in the evening the children were more inclined to give and receive affection, crawling over us, seeking attention for this little performance, that English word. Maybe like children everywhere, they were simply engaging in a bedtime ritual. And maybe it was the time of day when they most missed what they had lost.

The last evening was different. Both Cheyenne and I felt that the children sensed we were leaving the next day. Several made a point of connecting in ways that were deeper, acknowledging a sort of finality, a closing. Nak, who had not cuddled up to me since the first night, did so again on this night. Srey Mou came to my lap, and so did Mak Phon. Wayne said that they are not good at good-byes. I think he meant that they don’t say good-bye in the way that visitors might want them to. To me it seemed that with the many comings and goings, including the big life leave-takings they have experienced, they understand on a deep level the Buddhist concept of the impermanence of life.

Lessons from the Journey:
        1) Smiles are universal.
        2) Witnessing transformation is a superb gift.
        3) Children who have lost much can see
        the next loss coming.
        4) Nothing is permanent.

© Anna Redsand 2016 All Rights Reserved
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