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Life on the Streets

Diary #2 : March 2001

They're back, sleeping outside the Pailin Hotel and wandering Monivong Blvd, Street 107, Street 182, and hanging around near the Capitol Guesthouse.

Other than my usual activities of buying the kids food and taking some photos, which they always enjoy, I spent a bit more time with S'kun. I'm beginning to understand her self-invented form of sign language better, and I feel confident that I'm getting at least 50% of what she's trying to tell me. And as she comes to know me better, there is a lot more she's trying to tell me. Not all of it pleasant.

One of the things I was doing in Phnom Penh was getting some price quotes on t-shirt printing. The whys and what-fors are another matter, but it had to do with the creation of silk-screens from watercolor paintings and photographs. Having found a shop to do business with, I asked the owner if he'd make a special shirt for me. Happy to oblige he quickly knocked off a photographic transfer using a shot of S'kun from last year. I tracked her down on Monivong and gave her the shirt. She was thrilled.

Another adventure for S'kun was her (first?) opportunity to see the Internet. I brought her into an Internet cafe and showed her this very website. She enjoyed it tremendously and it was here that she 'told' me a lot about her friends and what they were doing now. When she saw the two pictures taken in her neighborhood she communicated to me that, yes, that is where her house is, and no, she doesn't like it. Then she made hand motions that indicated mother, followed by punching motions to her own face. A face that for the moment had a clear look of sadness on it.

But showing S'kun her own website wasn't enough, she wanted to see everything I had about Cambodia - the garbage dump, the photos of Ratanakiri, etc. And she seemed to have a good idea of what she was looking at, too. She also indicated that she done some garbage scavenging herself in the past.

On the 18th of March, S'kun asked me if I'd get her a motorbike to take her home so she could leave some photos there that another foreigner had given her. Sure, if I can come, was my answer. Naturally, the entire gang wanted to come, too, so two motorbikes and drivers were obtained. On one bike, was driver, me, and S'kun, and on the second bike the four boys (Beng Sath, Cham Nap, Ko, and Jau - the one-legged boy wasn't around this day) and the driver squeezed on.

We made our way to The Building neighborhood, snaking around some narrow alleyways that no car could get through. Dozens of ragged wooden shacks crammed with families lined these pathways. Rivers of muck (garbage and raw sewage) ran down the sides. We parked the bikes and walked the last thirty meters. S'kun's mother, seeing a foreigner bringing her girl home, was most welcoming. It was a short-lived welcome.

The family shack was home to several families living in individual, fully-separated rooms. Their section had two tiny rooms, one filled with personal belongings, the other containing a wooden bed. Eight people lived in this small space. If it was 95 degrees outside, it was 105 inside.

S'kuns mother began to make hand motions that S'kun would stay at the house. S'kun shook her head and made grunting noises. They began a pantomime argument and it quickly became a very tense situation. I looked at S'kun's mother - very angry and very determined to keep her daughter at home. S'kun sat on the bed looking defiantly at her mother, but I sensed some measure of fear as well. There were four people in the room. S'kun, her mother, one of the motorbike drivers who spoke some English, and myself. From what I saw and felt, I believe that had the driver and I left the room S'kun would have been back-handed across the face in a second. I should mention that S'kun is about 4'10" and probably weighs 75 to 80 pounds on a full stomach. Her mother has a few inches and maybe twenty pounds on her daughter.

Cham Nap pulled the driver outside for a moment and said something to him. The driver came back in and told me what Cham Nap said. In an effort to keep her daughter at home, S'kun's mother recently had locked S'kun in the other room and for further measure, chained her arm to a piece of furniture. S'kun later escaped.

The mother turned to me and my driver and said she was afraid for her daughter living on the streets. Understandable, of course, what mother wouldn't be? I said to her that your daughter is a highly intelligent kid with plenty of street smarts capable not only of caring for herself, but watching out for however many other urchins have latched on to her. To avoid making a bad situation worse I politely left out the fact that on the streets she wasn't crammed into a tiny shack with half a dozen relatives and a mother that beats her up and chains her to heavy furniture, but I was prepared to play that card if I needed to. I certainly wasn't going to have S'kun stay in this house against her will. The mother than complained about her daughter using glue all the time. I replied that your daughter is hardly using glue now. I've seen her every day for the past five days and only once saw her take a whiff.

I should point out though, that S'kun knows I disapprove of the glue and being nobody's fool, she knows enough not to let me see her use it. On the other hand, during these five days she was the most lucid and coherent I had ever seen her, so there may be some truth to her claims that she's backing off the solvents.

Mother confirmed that she knew she had a smart, capable daughter, but still she wanted her daughter at home. I looked around the home, the neighborhood, the mother (who seemed more than a bit drunk this day), and I knew S'kun was better off on the streets than in this house. I sent S'kun outside. I then made a few more statements to her mother playing up the positive aspects of her daughter's personality and her ability to take care of herself. I told her I know where she stays and who she spends time with. She's doing fine, I said. The mother only glared at me.

It was soon time to leave. I looked at S'kun who had quite a worried look on her face. Obviously she wasn't sure if I was going to leave her here or take her back. When I motioned for her to come, too, her worry was replaced by a big grin, and with a hop, skip, and a jump she bounded back to the motorbike. The mother stood at the doorway of the house in silent fury, shaking her head, giving me and her daughter dirty looks.

On the way back to the area of the Capitol Guesthouse, S'kun was even more upbeat than usual. Always the clown, she must have been up to all sorts of nonsense behind me on the motorbike, for every time I turned around I got a "Who, me? I'm not doing anything, ha, ha, ha" look. I can only imagine what it was she "wasn't doing".

Back by the Capitol, it was time to say goodbye. Waves and hugs all around. Then, with full confidence, S'kun made her way across the street, forcing an entire line of traffic to come to a screeching halt. Pointlessly, one truck driver leaned on his horn, unaware that the young girl in front of his truck, walking across the street with a gait like a model strolling down a fashion runway, hand on her hip, head held high, and an exaggerated bump of her rump, is completely deaf. I can only imagine the look of smugness S'kun must of had on her face. I laughed, "You go, girl."


diary #1 (May 2000 - October 2000)

diary #2 (March 2001)

diary #3 (April 2001)

diary #4 (July 2001)

diary #5 (September 2001 - November 2001)

Life on the Streets



All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.