“Mr. Man” prepared for author Dana McMahan a memorable treat of fresh coconut juice with toasted, pounded sticky rice.
“Before this, I was just a doctor from Kentucky,” said Dr. Bill Housworth as we walked across the grounds of the Angkor Hospital for Children. “This” is his role as executive director at the hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where the Louisville physician has served since 2008. That offhand comment sparked an avalanche of emotion—not hard in this dusty city 10,000 miles from home where my emotions often ran close to the surface.
At home, you see, it’s easy to distract yourself, quell any unpleasant emotions. Just flip the page, close the browser, change the channel. The cost of this ease, though? You might be able to quash negative feelings, but there’s an equal and opposite reaction: You may well lose the ability to fully experience the good ones.
In Cambodia, there’s no such ability. This is life in living color—the desperate poverty, the glorious and mysterious temple ruins with their incense-wreathed inner chambers, the warm smiles, the outstretched empty hands, the relentless traffic, the flow of life on rivers and lakes, the aromatic curries, the scrawny dogs, the reeking meat market and its rivulets of blood tracking the dirt floor, the placid water lilies—it’s all a jumble of color and smell and intensity.
My husband, Brian, and I were spending eight days in the country, each day an opportunity to witness life in a place that is not our own, completely unable to turn away from any of it. Much of it left me shocked and speechless, unable to comprehend some of humankind’s worst atrocities that have marked the country, while the part in all of us that wants to see the good found scraps of joy in the resilience and smiles of the Khmer people.
At least we weren’t adrift on our own; we fortunately had a guide, Mr. Rida, and a driver, “Mr. Man,” courtesy of Kensington Tours, and they navigated us through the history and modern landscape of this country that has seen so much horror. Happily for us, they did so with good humor and total transparency. It’s hard to remain somber for any length of time when your giggling guide is carefully noting new-to-him American slang. Mr. Rida’s in-all-seriousness question about our vernacular word for U-turn, “How do you spell U-ey?” led to a fit of my own giggles one long, hot afternoon when we decided against seeing a fifth temple and asked to turn around and head back to the hotel. The driver’s English wasn’t nearly as fluent as Mr. Rida’s, but he paid close attention, and he noted my exceeding fondness for fresh coconut. One afternoon, as I relaxed on a hammock at a roadside stand following a morning bumping down dirt roads on a bicycle, he prepared a treat for me: pounded, toasted rice stirred into a coconut shell mixed with the fresh juice and a spoonful of sugar. My first taste may well have been the most blissful moment of the trip.
In the way that travel has of turning your feelings upside down, though, our refreshment break was followed by a temple visit where a haunting melody greeted us as we slowly made our way in the baking afternoon heat to the temple grounds. A man and woman, both blinded in land mine accidents, were playing a drum and a string instrument in the shade of a banyan tree. If we’re being honest, many of us at home want to hurry past a scene like that, the good-hearted among us maybe tossing them some coins. But here, I could commit no such disrespect. I couldn’t answer the question posed to me on this trip of why my country didn’t help in Cambodia’s darkest hour—the Khmer Rouge genocide of some 2 million people—but I could at least stand before these people and appreciate the gift of their music. I could tell them, through Mr. Rida’s translation, about my family back in Kentucky and their bluegrass music, about my grandpa’s fiddle that seemed a relative of this man’s snakeskin instrument. I could answer their giggling grandson’s questions about whether there is snow where I come from. And I could acknowledge to myself their pain, inextricably linked with their artistry.
Dark and bright, that was an underlying current of much of our experience. Floating on the vast Tonle Sap lake, basking in the sun on a wooden boat as Mr. Man, an accomplished vocalist, at last consented to sing a folk song and Mr. Rida and the boat driver clapped and danced along in an impromptu performance just for us, I couldn’t help but smile with childlike delight. At the same time, though, I couldn’t ignore the ramshackle housing that dotted the lake among the morning glory vines, floating and stilted shacks of corrugated metal and bamboo where people living on the oft-quoted $2 a day scrabbled out a life. We’d given pencils, notebooks, stickers and toys to some children at school in a floating village that morning. Though we were immensely uncomfortable with the idea of two white people swooping in to hand out baubles to brown-faced, big-eyed children dressed in grubby school uniforms, their delight at the gifts was heartbreakingly touching. I knelt by each shared desk and thought about how similar all kids are—I’d adored stickers and colorful pens myself at their age. I couldn’t help but reflect about how different my perception of poor was when I was a kid when compared to true poverty.
A constant refrain in my head on this trip played on a phrase heard commonly in Southeast Asia: same-same, but different. We’re all the same, really. We love our families, we want to be happy and healthy. And really, that’s it. Dr. Bill remarked on that idea during our talk. “What’s interesting is the similarities [between here and home],” he noted. “The No. 1 cause of losing your house or cow here is health costs.”
Most of us at home may not have cows, but many of us know people who have been devastated by health care costs. And that’s where the hospital comes in. More than 400 staff—all but about a half-dozen Cambodian—provide free care for children from around the country whose families can’t afford health care or who need better care than they can find in their villages. In a country where, under the Khmer Rouge, the doctors were slaughtered in my own lifetime, this is an infinitely more difficult task than in our own society of long-established educational and medical care systems. But every day the nurses and doctors tend to children and their families, offering a place to spread their mats and sleep at night, and rice for those who can’t afford the most basic of needs. Walking through the hospital grounds amidst a flurry of new construction activity, it’s possible to sense the hope that drives families here.
The hospital is doing more than just addressing immediate needs. Continuing education is constantly underway, as it’s crucial here to build up a system of qualified health care professionals. Dr. Bill hopes that one day soon he no longer will be needed. “Cambodians are fully capable of running things,” he says, “but their structure was torn apart.” He’ll consider his work a success when he works himself out of a job.
We visited with Dr. Bill as the sun sank on our last day in Siem Reap. I’d never felt so far from home as I did on this trip, and connecting with a fellow Kentuckian brought on a wave of homesickness even as it offered a comforting glow. Some wisdom he shared in passing put me more at ease for the remainder of our time in the country. “You have to remember who you are and where you come from,” he said when I asked him about his life adjusting to this faraway kingdom. That thought resonated with me and helped settle me even as thoughts tumbled and jumbled in my overwhelmed mind. No matter where in the world I find myself, no matter the situation, I’m just a writer from Kentucky.
For more information about the Angkor Hospital for Children, including how to donate funds or supplies, visit angkorhospital.org.